As you all know by now, I enjoy the weird and wonderful. Wherever I go I actively seek out those curiosities that might not be the most obvious stops and have yet to be truly disappointed with the results. It is because of this curiosity that we ended up at the Ohio State Reformatory (aka Mansfield Reformatory) when I was visiting my brother last month. Whatever I may have been hoping to get out of it, this place definitely met and exceeded all of my expectations – it’s a gorgeous structure that’s played host to inmates, movie stars, and even a few rap moguls; it’s cheap, massive, and uncharacteristically open on the self-guided tours; and it’s an awesome source of both history and perspective. Convinced yet? (smile)
The Ohio State Reformatory opened its doors to its first young offenders in September 1896 and closed December 31, 1990 (courtesy of a federal court order after inmates filed suit claiming unfit conditions). In it’s 94 years of service, the facility housed over 155,000 men. Built in three primary architectural styles – Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Queen Anne – the building was meant to inspire inhabitants to turn away from their sinful lifestyle and be “reborn.” Unfortunately, most of the grounds and support buildings demolished after the prison closed. In 1995 the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society was formed and turned the site into a museum. Admission costs and tours now fund rehabilitation projects, including work to stabilize the buildings against further deterioration.
The tour begins in the living quarters for the warden before progressing into staff dormitories and classrooms. You then proceed to the chapel before abruptly changing scenery to the East Cell Block. Interestingly enough, the East Cell Block remains the largest free standing steel cell block in the world at 6 tiers high. In total, it could hold up to 1,200 men. There is no part of this section that made me want to ever go to jail (not that I was really so inclined to begin with, but you know…). Quarters are cramped to say the least and it’s definitely foreboding – especially when compared to the outside and staff quarters. It seems like the perfect place for all those ghost stories you can read/hear about along the way…. [As an aside, I think this would be an awesome place for a true ghost tour. I noticed that they even occasionally offer guided tours by candlelight – so bummed I missed that!]
Between the East and West Cell Blocks, there’s the main guard tower area and access to the solitary confinement cells. After seeing solitary, I have a whole new appreciation for how prisoners’ went mad in short order. *shudder* I’m sure there’s a method to the madness, but it certainly doesn’t seem like it was very humane.
Next you have the opportunity to visit the West Cell Block, which was the first set of cells constructed. It stands 5 tiers high and could hold up to 700 inmates. As the cells in the West Block are larger, they were considered “luxury accommodations” and housed trusties. Trusties were inmates who had earned the confidence of the staff and held better jobs. This area definitely seemed like the better place to be (should you have to be there). The cells were much more spacious and the atmosphere seemed a bit more…relaxed? It’s strange to really think about, but I definitely got different vibes from one to another.
The Reformatory is most famous as the backdrop for The Shawshank Redemption. Almost all of the movie was shot on the Reformatory’s grounds, except for the prison cells. The movie directors wanted the cells facing one another (vs facing the windows as these do) so a set was constructed at a nearby warehouse. There are movie-specific tours offered to the public on Sundays, and from what I gather, you do get to see a few areas that aren’t open to the self-guided souls. If you prefer to wander on your own, there are kiosks scattered throughout offering information on the reformatory’s history, movie roles, and hauntings for your perusal.
The Reformatory has also been featured in several other movies including Tango & Cash and Air Force One. It’s also set the stage for several music videos for stars such as Lil Wayne and Godsmack. Once you get a look around, it’s pretty easy to understand how the place could appeal to such a wide variety – it does seem to have a little bit of something for everyone!
Please note that one of the best things about this site for me was that it was so open and un-polished. There’s a lot of rust, items lying around, and access to areas that should probably be roped off. There are a lot of stairs and also some high places and tight spaces. I realize not everyone will be so happy about some of those conditions, so consider this your fair warning! (smile) Plan to spend somewhere between 2-4 hours on site. Although there is a small gift shop, snacks are limited. You can take your own water in with you though, which is nice.
The Ohio State Reformatory is located in Mansfield, Ohio. It’s open daily for tours April 1 through September 1 from 11:00am to 4:00pm. Self-guided tour admission is $9 per person; audio wands are available for $5 each. Guided tours, which are currently only available on Sundays, are $14 per person.