The Ohio State Reformatory is a defunct prison located in Mansfield, Ohio, a small city about halfway between Cleveland (to the northeast) and Columbus (to the southwest). It was in operation, in a variety of different security levels, from 1896 until 1990, when it was closed by a federal court ruling. Its main claim to fame is as the setting for the classic film The Shawshank Redemption.
Construction and beginnings
Planning for construction and land acquisition began in the late 1860s. The state of Ohio purchased forty acres of farmland situated in Mansfield, a small town that was then in the middle of nowhere, and set it aside to build the prison on. Construction began in 1886 and was slow to complete, finishing twenty-four years later, in 1910. The complex was big—four massive, towering cell blocks, a central administration building situated at the confluence of the cell blocks, and extensive workshops covered most of the grounds. A 25-foot (7.6 meters) high stone wall enclosed the entire area. Railroad tracks were routed adjacent to the prison to allow for incoming and outgoing supply and distribution of the works created by the inmates in the workshops.
Today only two of the original four cell blocks remain standing. The East and West Blocks stand six stories high and contain some 1200 cells. To this day they are the tallest free-standing cell blocks in the world. None of the workshops remain; they, along with the North and South Blocks were demolished in the early 1990s.
Though there were surely a number of trade workshops on the premises, I speak authoritatively on only one of them: the furniture and wood shop. Various benches, staircases, bannisters and balustrades crafted by OSR inmates are on display in the office areas today. What is left of the complex has since 1995 been a museum managed by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society.
Architect Levi T. Scofield of Cleveland, a student of the Romanesque school, designed the facility and F. F. Schnitzer oversaw its construction. Both their names appear on the cornerstone, which is located just outside the main office entrance. The initial investment was $1.3 million in 1884, which is analogous to $31.1 million in 2010.
The decades of construction were mostly carried out by the inmates themselves, under the supervision of a cadre of corrections officers and the aforementioned F. F. Schnitzer. The incomplete prison was opened on September 15, 1896, but funding problems contributed significantly to the delay in finishing the structures. It was finally opened in full on September 17, 1910.
Crime and punishment
OSR was intially an actual reformatory—that is, somewhere that young, minor criminals and mostly first-time offenders were sent for sentences of a few months to a few years for petty crimes. Once incarcerated there, the inmates were taught trade skills and indoctrinated with religious dogma in the government's hope that they would lead a productive life after their release, although I would think that religious indoctrination would make them less productive and more self-absorbed. Religion is no friend of man.
That changed in 1930, when OSR was converted into a maximum security prison. The demand for maximum security prisons was rising during the Great Depression as desperate people turned to crime to assuage their financial woes. Though the four cell blocks at OSR were designed to hold 2400 inmates (600 in each block), over 3500 were eventually stuffed into the tiny cells (approximately 6x8 feet/1.8x2.4 meters each), with three or four inmates sharing a cell intended for a single person or two in a pinch. As any could surely imagine, this lead to extremely cramped and unsanitary conditions, but no one seemed to care until 1978 (by which time the prison population had shrunk to "only" 2200 inmates), when the Counsel for Human Dignity, a coalition of civil and religious organizations, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the inmates on the basis of their basic human rights being violated by living in such brutal conditions.
The 1978 federal case was the beginning of the end for OSR. In 1990, it was shut down by order of the Boyd Consent Decree, issued in 1983 and the subject of much legal wrangling during the 1980s. By 1986, OSR officials began closing down cell blocks. In December 1990, the last block closed and the inmates were transferred elsewhere.
Shit just got real
Like any other prison, OSR had its share of violence. Despite the severe overcrowding, only one riot seems to have occurred, with the rest of the incidents apparently isolated.
Here's a handy bulleted list of such incidents:
- 1926: An inmate who was released returned to OSR in an attempt to free a friend. He shot a guard in the attempt.
- 1932: An inmate beat a guard to death with an iron rod in the solitary confinement area. How he got an iron rod into solitary confinement isn't explained in any documentation I found.
- 1948: Two paroled inmates returned to OSR to kidnap and murder the farm boss and his family.
- 1950: Warden Arthur Glattke's wife, Helen Glattke, was shot in the chest and died in an apparent accident involving her mishandling a gun in the warden's quarters. There has since been speculation that Warden Glattke shot her himself and made it look accidental in order to avoid the messy process of divorce. The warden himself had a heart attack and died in his OSR office in 1959.
- 1955: Two suicides and a murder—one inmate hanged himself in his cell and another ingested turpentine mixed with paint thinner stolen from the prison's furniture shop. Then, down in solitary confinement, two inmates were forced to share one solitary cell. One beat the other to death in the cramped space.
- 1957: OSR's only riot. I couldn't find any details on the carnage. Only the result: 120 inmates stuffed into twenty solitary cells for thirty days.
Since the 1970s, movies and television shows have been filmed at OSR. Since its closure, use of the prison as a set has increased.
Both the WWE and Marilyn Manson have made promotional photoshoots and videos at OSR.
OSR has attained such noteriety from its starring role in The Shawshank Redemption that it has pictorial plaques hanging in various areas which depict scenes from the movie in the places they were actually filmed, including the warden's office; the foyer with the staircase Andy Dufresne and Warden Norton walk down while Andy is trying to convince the warden to give him funds for the construction of a prison library; Brooks' (and later Red's) apartment in the halfway house which is actually on the prison grounds; the solitary confinement cell Andy was held in and the adjacent solitary corridor; the prison library; the parole office Red visits at the beginning, middle and end of the film; the "bullpen" area in which the newly-arrived prisoners are introduced to the warden; the showers where Bogs introduces himself to Andy; and the cell in which Elmo Blach describes killing Andy's wife. This last bit, Blach's cell, was the only scene in the movie filmed in one of OSR's non-solitary cells. The large open room full of cells seen in the movie was actually purpose-built in a disused Westinghouse factory a few miles down the road from OSR. Also on display are some props from Shawshank, including the sewage pipe (which is actually made of wood and is free-standing, not subterranean) and the hole in the wall that once housed Norton's safe.
A public address system outside plays the Shawshank score and soundtrack on a loop all day long. It really adds to the whole Shawshank experience. You feel almost like you're in the movie. It's really cool.
Also on display are the murals of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin that were used in Air Force One, seen in the prison scenes. OSR stands in for the Russian prison holding the renegade General Ivan Radek. Additionally, there's a cell painted gold on display that was used in a hip hop video (I'm not sure which one).
The Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society operates guided and self-guided tours of the complex during Ohio's warmer months. Tickets for the self-guided tour can be purchased in the office on-site and they will sell to walk-in guests without reservations. The guided tours are part of the overnight ghost hunt packages, which are so popular that they must be reserved a year in advance.
The whole place is in pretty bad shape—lead paint chips litter much of it after having peeled and fallen off the walls. Most of the exposed metal is rusty. Many windows are absent, though the MRPS is installing new windows in the cell blocks at a cost of about $10,000 apiece (they're very large; about five stories tall), and a new roof to replace the leaking and dilapidated roof that's been in place since OSR's opening in 1896.
I attended the OSR ghost hunt in June 2012. It involves an overnight stay and access to almost all of the prison that still stands. The lights are all turned off in the areas of the tour. The night I was there had sold out the previous November, and despite 50 or so other people present, OSR is large enough to allow for a good deal of separation from other people or groups. My girlfriend and I brought cameras and digital voice recorders, but didn't capture anything paranormal in any medium. We were told by one of the organizers that the short-lived Syfy show "Ghost Hunters Academy" spent a week filming on location at OSR. Out of that week, they got only about twelve seconds of usable, debatably paranormal audio recordings and video. While OSR is undoubtedly creepy and exactly the sort of place one would expect to encounter something paranormal, I experienced nothing that made me think it was haunted. Others have told me about their experiences there, but when it comes to the paranormal, seeing is believing. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, after all.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend paying OSR a visit, particularly if you enjoyed The Shawshank Redemption. It's guaranteed to be the best time you'll ever have in a prison.
OSR was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Gates Brown, a Major League Baseball player for the Detroit Tigers in the 1960s and 70s, served a year in 1958-59 for burglary, prior to his baseball career. In 1989, Kevin Mack of the National Football League's Cleveland Browns served a month on drug charges.
The Richland Correctional Institution, opened in 1998, now stands on some of the former OSR grounds, directly north of what remains of OSR. It houses approximately 2500 inmates, mostly minimum and medium security. It can be seen from any north-facing window within OSR. A placard next to each of these windows declares that photographing the RCI in any context is strictly prohibited.
As for the future, the MRPS hopes to restore the whole facility one day. They rely on donations and selling tickets to ghost hunts and tours to pay for renovations.
I had never set foot in a prison, operational or otherwise, before I visited OSR. It was a pretty strange but simultaneously thrilling experience. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be incarcerated there at any time in its history. All the cells are tiny and paint chips, rust and dust have had their way with the place. Birds and bats nest in various rooms. But it's extremely creepy at night, and if you enjoy that sort of thing, it's a great time.