The prison was built with convict labor at a total cost of $75,000 and had space for 761 inmates. Opened in 1858, just outside of Joliet city limits. It replaced Alton Prison (opened 1833, closed 1860). The limestone buildings were designed by William Boyington (he also designed the Chicago Water Tower and the Capitol in Springfield), based on the panopticon ideas of Jeremy Bentham. The design became a model for United States prisons, at the time of building it was the largest prison in the country.
The first 33 inmates arrived in May 1858. Both criminal and military prisoners were kept there during the Civil War. The first corrections officer to be killed there was Joseph Clark in 1865. By 1872 the population had reached 1,239, a record number for a single prison. From the 1870s the prison had work contracts with local businesses.
The prison was slow to adapt to change, there was no running water or toilets in the cells in 1910 and the opening of the nearby Stateville prison in 1917 was meant to lead to the swift closure of Joliet. A women's prison was added across the road from the main structures in 1896 but closed in 1932.
Joliet Correctional Center closed in February 2002 for general inmates. Budget cuts and the obsolete and dangerous nature of the buildings were the cited reasons. The number of inmates had peaked at 1,300 in 1990 and was still 1,156 in 2000, although capacity had been raised to 1,300 in 1999-2000 from 1,180 previously. In 2000 there were 541 staff and the center ran on a annual budget of $33.8 million. From the 1990s the prison worked more as a reception and classification center for northern Illinois, holding prisoners for less than a month and processing over 20,000 a year.
The facilities of Joliet Correctional Center were transferred to new buildings built at Stateville Correctional Center, the other maximum security prison in Joliet.
See also: List of Illinois state prisons