Joliet Shouldn’t Be a (For-Profit) Prison Kind of Town

As my family and I drove over the river to Joliet’s East Side, I had little idea what to expect at our Collins Street destination — a fundraiser by the local grassroots organization Concerned Citizens of Joliet. All we knew was that the gathering was for a good cause: raising awareness about and galvanizing community resistance to the prospect of a for-profit immigration detention center being built here in Joliet.

Azteca de Oro banquet hall in Joliet, IL

Azteca de Oro banquet hall in Joliet, IL

When we entered Azteca de Oro banquet and dance hall, though, I sensed instantly that it would be a memorable evening. Friendly greeters directed us to a comfortable table right next to the dance floor, which thrilled my two girls. A boisterous Mariachi band was in full voice from the stage at one end of the hall, while at the other end happy folks mingled and laughed at a well-stocked bar.

And the food! Long buffet tables full of stewed chicken, sautéed beef and vegetables, rice, refried beans, tortillas, salads, and sweet treats beckoned, and I’ll admit we weren’t shy about asking for seconds.

But the best part of the evening was the music and dancing, of which there was a glorious abundance. Musical acts of all stripes and colors entertained the swelling crowd, including the inspiring gospel of the Mt. Zion Tabernacle Choir, the witty folk/pop/rock stylings of singer-guitarist Dan Droogan, and the hot salsa of the Sangre Latina dance band.

This joyous music from musicians black, white, and brown filled the hall as dozens of children took to the dance floor to run, skip, chase each other, play hide and seek, and make new friends. Soon the hall’s lights came on in their full resplendence, and the adults joined the kids in what became one of the most festive scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time.

The shuttered Joliet Correctional Center, July 2011. State Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi led a tour to revive interest in the facility (Photo: Matthew Grotto, Chicago Sun-Times)

The shuttered Joliet Correctional Center, July 2011. State Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi led a tour to revive interest in the facility (Photo: Matthew Grotto, Chicago Sun-Times)

But the spoken word, both Spanish and English, was part of the program, too. Local politicians, including Will County Board members Reed Bible of Plainfield and Denise Winfrey of Joliet, and community organizers took the stage to decry the prospect of an immigrant prison here in Joliet. As I contemplated their message of critique and concern, I reflected on the irony of our location. Just a stone’s throw from us on Collins Street was Illinois’ ultimate penal icon: the Old Joliet Prison, decommissioned and deteriorating since 2002.

Yes, Joliet might someday make some money from its undeniably long prison legacy, though that civic identity has always been problematic for us. But not, I hope, through the construction of a for-profit immigrant “detention center” that is dedicated to the pocketbooks of its potential owners (in this case, Corrections Corporation of America) rather than the welfare of its detainees — most of whom will be our Hispanic brothers and sisters.

No-prison signInstead, we should look north from Azteca de Oro and do something productive with the Old Joliet Prison before its massive limestone walls crumble to the ground. Expensive, yes — but interpretive signs in the parking lot for Route 66 tourists don’t fill the tax coffers, either.

No, folks — we don’t need another prison here. Certainly not one focused on pieces of silver rather than social justice. Joliet’s ongoing flirtation with such a prospect should be closely monitored and vociferously protested by all people of conscience.

A shorter version of this article on Sunday, 18 march 2013. Also see this 20 March 2013 op-ed piece, “Make Joliet a City of Jobs, Not Jails,” by Mark Meinster of Warehouse Workers of America.

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