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State finds Joliet prison fire was arson

This is what's left building inside Old Joliet Prison. The fire started around 3:05am  located 1125 Collins St. JolietIllinois

This is what's left of the building inside the Old Joliet Prison. The fire started around 3:05am located at 1125 Collins St. Joliet,Illinois on Thursday, July 25, 2013. | Larry Kane~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 3, 2013 7:49AM



The fire last week at the closed state prison in Joliet has been ruled arson, the state fire marshal’s office said Thursday.

Meanwhile, state and city officials met Thursday to begin talking about a long-term solution to security at the prison and the future of the property.

The fire marshal’s office did not release details about its investigation into the blaze that broke out in an empty storage building in the early morning hours of July 25.

“It was ruled officially arson,” said Milly Santiago, spokeswoman for the fire marshal’s office. “There are no suspects or individuals identified yet.”

Santiago said information was not being released on what was found at the fire site so as not to harm the ongoing investigation.

A spokesman for the state corrections department last week said the fire was considered suspicious because nothing was stored in the building that caught fire, and the former Joliet Correctional Center has not had electric service for years. It closed in 2002.

However, speculation on the cause of the fire included the possibility that it might have been unintentionally set by squatters. Prison officials acknowledged that people have been breaking into the property and living there at times. Vandals also have damaged the interior of an office building there and spray-painted walls inside the prison.

In Joliet, concerns have centered on security and maintenance of the deteriorating property, and the potential for converting it to another use. The state no longer maintains the prison and has no plans to reuse it. It remains under the control of the corrections department instead of being transferred to the state agency in charge of selling unused state property.

Joliet officials met Thursday with representatives from the corrections department.

“I think the state knows that it has a major responsibility on its hands,” said City Manager Thomas Thanas, who was in the meeting. “The state has expressed an interest in working with us in finding a better solution than what we have now.”

The first task, Thanas said, is to come up with a better way to get Joliet firefighters and police inside the prison if necessary.

Firefighters last week fought the blaze initially from outside the prison because they had no immediate access to the property.

Because the storage building is just inside a wall that runs along Collins Street, fire crews were able to contain the blaze by hosing it down from fire truck ladders raised above the wall until someone from the state arrived to open a gate.

The state does not have plans to remove the burnt debris from the site “because it does not pose any harm to anyone,” Tom Shaer, spokesman for the corrections department, said. “There’s a 20-foot wall around it, and no one’s supposed to be in there.”

Shaer said the state has lifted the 24-hour watch on the site that was posted during the fire investigation. He said three daily patrols would resume around the outside of the prison, with those officers occasionally going inside the prison.



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