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Haunted history of old Joliet prison

Bettye Gavin said the Collins Street prison years ago had a way of enlightening not only the inmates, but also the correctional officers.

“It was a life learning experience,” she said.

The Joliet councilwoman started a job in the mid-1970s, working as a correctional officer at the Collins Street prison. At the time, she was new to the city of Joliet.

The site has come a long way since its days as a prison years ago, Gavin said. In the spirit of Halloween, the Collins Street prison is currently used to operate paranormal tours and ghost hunts.

The city of Joliet and the Joliet Area Historical Museum selected Chicago Hauntings to run programs at the prison through the season’s end.

"This opportunity gives us a great vision of what we could do and how valuable that old prison actually is, as it relates to tourism,” Gavin said.

“It was a big eyesore,” Gavin said of the prison. “It was sitting in my district, too, and [members of the city council] were trying to figure out what to do [with the site] and how to do it."

Gavin said she thinks the paranormal tours and ghost hunts are good at getting people interested in the prison and its history.

“I haven’t ever witnessed [paranormal activity,] no more than just heard the stories,” she said. “There were a lot of lives, a lot bodies, and a lot of spirits roaming through that place.”

Gavin said she can imagine people would be curious to know what it was like to work at the prison.

“You could always wonder as you pass the place, the walls, and the barbed wire,” Gavin said. “You would have some type of curiosity as to what goes on behind those walls. … It’s no joke. It is the real deal back there.”

Years ago, a friend told Gavin the prison was hiring, Gavin said. She filled out the application, and she got the job.

As a correctional officer, Gavin was tasked at first with working the front end of the prison.

“At that time, women could not work the cell units,” she said. “Shortly after I began to work there, that changed. We were able then to work in all sections of the prison. That, of course, added a little bit more stress to the job.”

Gavin said the job required her to support the site and its security efforts.

“It was stressful,” she said. “You’re talking about working at a prison, and you’re talking about dealing with inmates, various walks of life, and crime.”

Gavin said every inmate had their own problems, and she’s heard stories of injustice during her time working at the prison.

Her job as a correctional officer would scare away many applicants.

“If there were staff concerns, sometimes [they] were short of help,” Gavin said. “Other than that, it did not create a problem, in terms of how the facility was managed.”

Gavin said the inmates treated her with respect during her time as a correctional officer.

Gavin stopped working at the Collins Street prison in late 1979.

“It strengthened me,” she said of the experience.

The city of Joliet and the Joliet Area Historical Museum have not yet decided if they intend to bring back Chicago Hauntings to host another round of paranormal tours and ghost hunts next year.


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