By Elaine Kish
If you’re a history buff, a movie buff, or just curious about whether paranormal activity really does happen, the walls of the Ohio State Reformatory have a lot to tell you. On the day we visited, there were numerous vehicles in the parking lot from neighboring states and even Canada, confirming that people from many areas are eager to see this historic and well-known structure.
On November 4, 1886 the cornerstone was laid to begin construction of an Intermediate Penitentiary in Mansfield, Ohio. Architect Levi Scofield intended his design to create a sense of spirituality for the inmates. It was a combination of architectural styles, evident in the large granite pillars, Gothic columns and elegant aspects of the structure.
Construction continued for almost ten years and although it was not yet completely finished, in September, 1896 the state transferred 150 inmates from the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus to the new facility in Mansfield which had been renamed the Ohio State Reformatory. In contrast to penitentiaries where the motive is to discipline and isolate hardened criminals, the concept of the new institution was to reform but still punish inmates, all of which were men aged 16-30, incarcerated in a state prison for the first time and not convicted of murder.
Initially, some inmates were assigned to work on the sewer system and the 25-foot stone wall that surrounded the 15-acre complex. Inmate labor was also used for brick outbuildings and the East Cell Block, which was ultimately completed another decade later in 1908.
The first inmates were housed in the West Cell Block. Constructed of steel and stone, it was five tiers high and had 360 two-man cells and some four-man cells, holding a total of 750 men. Inmates were basically housed in groups according to their trade. The East Cell Block was six levels high with 600 cells which housed about 1,200 inmates. Cells on the east side were smaller as they were intended for one person at a size of 6 feet by 8 feet. Due to overcrowding conditions, by 1934 these small cells housed two inmates each.
There were two floors each with 30 correction cells, later known as solitary confinement. These cells, which were kept at a constant 90 degrees Fahrenheit, had a sink and a toilet only, with no cots or lights. If it became necessary, two inmates were housed in a correction cell. They ate the limited meals they were allowed in the cell, slept on the cement floor and showered once a week.
Both cell blocks had windows which could be opened in the summer to circulate air, although the upper levels were always very hot. Buildings were heated in the winter, but due to their size and the doors being opened and closed constantly, it was difficult to keep them warm and the lower tiers were always extremely cold.
The facility had two outside dormitories which housed another 550 inmates. In the main building there was a central guard room, multiple chapels and various factories. As a condition of their “reform,” inmates were required to attend religious services and four different denominational services were conducted on Sundays. Inmates were required to attend classes and obtain at least an 8th grade education. They were also required to learn a trade, so there were on-site furniture, clothing, and shoe factories. There was additional trade education in a barber shop, a printing shop, a machine shop, a power plant and an identification department.
There was a library, a gymnasium, and a hospital for the inmates on the premises, as well as living quarters for the warden, assistant warden and chaplain. Sports were encouraged as a team-building activity during yard time and outside teams were often invited to come in for organized baseball or basketball games. An honors farm on the property produced much of the food served, making the Ohio State Reformatory basically a self-sufficient institution.
The onset of prohibition in the 1920s resulted in an increase in criminal activity associated with liquor trafficking. The Ohio State Reformatory was part of that increase and cells designed for one inmate were used for two inmates.
Between 1920 and 1930 the population of federal prisons tripled. At that time, the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus had already been deemed severely overcrowded for numerous years. The nation’s worst prison fire occurred at the Ohio Penitentiary in April, 1930 after which 600 of their inmates were transferred to other state facilities. It was reported that 200 of those prisoners were moved to the Ohio State Reformatory.
Federal prison populations nearly doubled in size again from 1930 to 1940 and additional prisons were built. That significant increase was attributed to The Great Depression where unemployed individuals exchanged freedom for a roof over their head and food. Even with the increase in their inmate population, the Ohio State Reformatory continued its efforts to reform inmates.
Additional trade schools and business training classes were added. Some inmates worked as trustees, assigned to offices, residences and honor camps outside the walls. Religious education was still required and they still offered services on Sundays.
The years 1940 to 1946 showed a decrease in prison populations and through the 1950s the Ohio State Reformatory maintained its program to rehabilitate, educate and punish inmates.
During the 1960s the inmate population decreased. Inmates were still required to obtain an education and there was an on-site high school, Fields High School. The first class to graduate from a state-certified high school within a penal institution received their diplomas in 1965. The Ohio State Reformatory invited college professors from nearby Ashland College to teach at the facility and some inmates took advantage of that option to further their education.
In 1969 the Ohio State Reformatory began housing inmates charged with first and second-degree murder, which had minimum sentences of life in prison. Security became a higher priority since it was then classified as a “maximum security” institution.
All inmates were tested and interviewed upon their arrival during the 1970s, after which they were assigned to the Ohio State Reformatory or transferred to another institution. Although reform was encouraged, it was no longer mandatory. Inmates were urged to choose educational classes and attend some type of worship service, but they were not required to so.
By the 1980s, the Ohio State Reformatory housed inmates who were over the age of 30, had previously been incarcerated, and had been charged with serious felonies. With the onset of mandatory sentencing for drug offenses, overcrowded prisons were common. The buildings were in disrepair and outdated, with cockroach infestations and numerous broken windows. Intended to house 1,900 inmates, the inmate population at that time was 2,400.
A group known as the Counsel for Human Dignity filed a lawsuit on behalf of the inmates, alleging that the prisoners’ constitutional rights were being violated because they were forced to live in “brutalizing and inhumane” conditions. An agreement in 1983 requiring improvements to the living conditions ended the lawsuit. It was also agreed that the Ohio State Reformatory would ultimately be closed by December 31, 1986.
The facility was slated for demolition due to its irreparable condition and construction of a new facility adjacent to the old building was started. However, due to construction delays, the new maximum-security Mansfield Correctional Institution was not completed until September, 1990, at which time inmates began transferring to the new facility. The last staff and inmates left Ohio State Reformatory on December 31, 1990 and it was closed permanently. Strangely enough, the new correctional facility can be seen from some locations in the old reformatory building.
Ownership of the facility was retained by the state of Ohio until 1995 when the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society (MRPS) was formed and ultimately took possession. The Society’s mission is to maintain, restore, preserve, and showcase the Ohio State Reformatory as a historic site. Restoration of the facility has continued through the years, including returning a portion of the warden’s family living quarters to its original opulence, complete with furniture and stained-glass windows.
Although Ohio State Reformatory is well known as the location for the movie Shawshank Redemption, few people realize that parts of the facility were also used in the films Air Force One and Tango & Cash. In fact, some of the film companies’ props and equipment still remain on the premises.
There are several options for tours of the Ohio State Reformatory. Visitors are cautioned that they will pass through areas containing remnants of the original lead-based paint used at the facility. The self-guided tour allows visitors to travel the halls at their own pace and obtain information from interactive kiosks throughout the facility. The “History Meets Hollywood” guided tour takes visitors through the timeline of the buildings and the story of fictional inmate Andy Dufresne of Shawshank Redemption.
A “Beyond the Bars” tour allows access to areas not open to the general public and an “Inmate Tour” is actually conducted by a former inmate of the facility. Tours are daily April through Labor Day, at which time the Ohio State Reformatory closes to prepare for the holiday season. See ohiostatereformatory.org for more information about tours.
All tours are conducted by MRPS employees. During our tour we learned that some employees have heard footsteps following behind them, even though no one was in the building. Some have felt the “presence” of former inmates in their offices. No one has ever reported a confrontational incident, so it seems the past residents merely want to be acknowledged or remembered.
Along that same line, Ohio State Reformatory offers a Paranormal Program. The Ghost Hunt Challenge is for beginners and the Intermediate/Advanced Ghost Hunt for more experienced investigators. There is also a 2-hour Ghost Walk with paranormal guides and Ghost Hunting 101. The facility has been featured on Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters.
Each year from late September through early November the Ohio State Reformatory transforms itself into “Blood Prison.” Not for the faint of heart, visitors can expect to run for their lives as monsters and the criminally insane attempt to take in some new prisoners. Information about this tour and tickets are available at bloodprison.com.
Take a trip to Mansfield to tour the Ohio State Reformatory and see what the walls tell you.
Ohio State Reformatory