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Exploring the Mansfield Reformatory

I woke up on Friday, March 6th at 5:00am just like on any other day. However, my usual 30-minute drive to work would not be taking place today; instead I would be driving for almost 3 hours into Ohio, to a town called Mansfield. After three months, the day was finally here! At the end of the year I had learned about a photography tour that would be taking place at the Ohio State Reformatory, more commonly known as Mansfield Reformatory or Mansfield Prison. This was the location of the filming of Shawshank Redemption, one of the greatest prison movies ever made. It had been on my bucket list of places to explore for years! I could hear the massive building calling my name, and I was finally able to answer.

The Mansfield Reformatory was an active prison that was built between 1886 and 1910 and remained operational until 1990. Construction took so long due to complete due to funding delays. The cost of the facility was $1,300,000.00. Over the years, over 154,000 inmates passed through Mansfield’s walls, some rehabilitated released, and others dying inside, due to suicide and violence from the officers and other inmates.

Like I usually am for most of my shoots and appointments, I was quite early. The tour was set to start at 10:30 AM, and I arrived at 8:30! (I expected traffic to be a lot crazier than it was). As I watched my GPS marker get closer to the location, I questioned its accuracy. To my left, I saw trees and hills, to my right, open fields and no big buildings at all…. As I drove over the last hill, the prison finally appeared, as if out of nowhere- there was a tree line and then the massive brick structure that was Mansfield.

Knowing I was so early and anticipating a long wait to get let in, I rang the bell at the front gate and took in the sight from the road. Historical marker signs lined the area, including ones that said Shawshank Redemption Filming tour location. There was a light rain when I pulled up that continued for most of the day until I left, but that didn’t stop me from getting the shots of the outside. After about 10 minutes, the main gate opened; no one spoke through the intercom, so I just decided to go in! I pulled off to the parking lot on the right side of the building where I was greeted with some of the most amazing brickwork I had ever seen. It looked like something out of a medieval castle or out of a movie (fitting, as a movie had been filmed there, after all). I started out by taking my video and pictures of the exterior. Massive steel bars covered the cell block windows and the parking lot was virtually empty, so it made for great shots! I made my way to the front door and under a brick archway that lead inside the main area. There, I was greeted by some of the nicest staff, who informed me that even though I was early, to go ahead and start! Music to my ears.

I started out walking down the hallway of brown and yellow floors that have been shown in many movie scenes to an area where it gave you an informative background on the prison as intro to the tour. In the doorway stood a cardboard cutout of the warden character from The Shawshank Redemption, and it instantly made me feel like I was at the filming of the movie. In the main hall to the left was beautiful stained glass which had been saved from the chapel, and on the right was other info about religion at the prison, including original pictures of the chapel. Behind me as I walked in, was one of the most beautiful staircases I have seen- green with golden inlays and wooden risers, reading “T H Brooks and Co Cleveland Ohio.” The room adjacent to the main door held many prisoner artifacts, such as their hats and clothing, cell block keys that locked the doors in the early days of the prison, mugshots of real prisoners, books, bibles, and even the barber chair where inmates would get their hair cut.

Across the hall sat Old Sparky, the electric chair! Behind glass, the various tools and components used in executions were displayed, including the sponge hat, black hood, straight jacket, shackles (used both for transportation of inmates and solitary confinement) and the annex door that originally housed the chair, and finally, Old Sparky himself. This chair was actually from the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, where it was used in 315 Executions until the last one in 1963. Mansfield itself did not have an electric chair. I saw the device where the electricity would come from and the switch to activate it; lights lined the top and meters on either side showed how much electricity was being run through the unlucky person being executed. One wet sponge would be placed on the individual’s head and another strapped on the leg, where the electricity would expel from. 2,000 volts was initially induced and then is continued for up to 3 times until the inmate died.

As I made my way back out of this area, and up the green and gold staircase, I came to warden’s office. Behind the door was his desk in the center of the room with windows on either side. Movie posters lined the walls outside the office and the Brooks Hailln Memorial Library was just off to the right. As I continued up the stairs, I was brought to a large open room - The Warden’s Quarters. There were several bedrooms and areas to entertain guests that came to visit the Warden. A tragic story is associated with this room deals with the death of a Warden's wife. The Warden kept a pistol on a closet shelf, unbeknownst to her. Upon removing a jewelry box from that shelf, his wife accidentally dislodged a pistol from its hiding place. When the pistol hit the floor, it went off, inflicting a fatal wound.

Making my way along the route brought me to the next room, one that is highly recognizable to Shawshank fans, the Brooks Room, named for a major character from the film. Spoiler alert if you have not seen Shawshank- It was in this room that the scene of Brooks hanging himself was shot. On the main beam the following words were emblazoned: “Brooks was here and so was Red” (Red is another movie character). It was so cool to see that in person. The bedspread was green and there were very few objects in the room, except for a fan on the dresser, and the letter Brooks wrote to his friends on the wall. The room across the hall was empty but had a great view of the other side of the prison including the famous entry gate that was featured not only in Shawshank, but also other films such as Air Force One.

Between these two rooms was another staircase with a sign stating “Chapel and Cellblock”, pointing upwards. The yellow paint was peeling away from the stairs and led my eyes to the blue tint coming from the top, to the entry of the chapel. I made my way up and stopped, in awe, at the top where a massive wood and metal door opened into an amazing blue painted chapel area. It looked just like the pictures downstairs, with massive blue and yellow pillars standing tall in the middle of the open area. Exposed brick and peeling paint outlined the room while pieces of the ceiling littered the floor and pews. On the front wall was displayed an amazing, very well-preserved painting, of a saint with lions at his feet. A plaque on the front wall explained that 3 inmates were assigned to clean the area with a priest, and sometimes he would leave them alone in the afternoon. This stopped after the guards realized piles of dust on the floor behind a storage cabinet (which held cleaning supplies and other items for the prison). When the cabinet was pulled away, they found a hole that the inmates were tunneling out. No inmates were left alone in the chapel after that was discovered, and all 3 had time added to their sentences. The back of the chapel held a glass case with massive stone carvings that depicted the stations of the cross. To the right of the entrance door was the elevator, padlocked and peeling blue paint off the door made for an awesome picture. In the corners of the church at the front was windows with metal sheeting over them. On top of that, a paper that said “Photographs taken out this window STRICTLY PROHIBITED.” The reason for this was because there is actually a functioning prison directly behind this one. (Of course, taking a picture of the sign itself like I did was ok.)

Off to the left of the chapel was a door that led into the attic area. It was a massive, mainly open space, minus the giant wooden trusses in the middle of the room and generator or heating and cooling equipment for parts of the prison. This area was not only used for storage, but also as an overflow for inmates. Up to 200 prisoners at a time stayed in this area in the extreme heat or cold when the cell blocks were filed up. I could not imagine what that felt like- no windows, only cold brick and concrete and holes in the ceiling. Newspaper articles and old homemade checkerboards were stored throughout, along with some pews from the chapel.

As I cut back across the chapel, there was a door in the same spot on the far wall. This door led to the cell blocks! At this time, I was 4 levels up as I walked across the metal grated floor and into the main holding area. I then made my way to an area which looked out over the entire wing. Because I was so early I was the only one in there. No one was on the ground yet, so to be able to get those shots was amazing. The block stood 6 levels of cells high, with a front walkway no bigger than a few inches on each side of my shoulders. Paint chips peeled in every single cell and showed the reflections of the flickering orange and green lights hanging from the ceiling above. One of the coolest things about this area was how the light changed. Depending on what overhead lights were on at that moment and the sunlight coming from outside, it would range anywhere from orange, to green, blue, or yellow illuminating the cell blocks. It was like a prism, for the prison. The gate was closed off on the first side I came to, but the other side of the cell block was wide open and ready to explore. The first area I came to had the system that would open all of the cell doors and close them all at the same time, with the pull of a lever.

Most of the cells themselves were no bigger than 8’X10’. I could stand in the middle of a cell with my arms stretched out and almost touch either side. Each cell contained a toilet in one corner (some including a small cabinet above), a sink in the other corner, and 2 beds hanging from the wall on chains, one above the other. There were no ladders, so you had better be able to jump up! While most of the cells were dark, a few were staged for the tour, which had the light on and the beds made with the actual bedding used by the inmates. The mattress pads were something far from comfortable, plastic lining with about as much cotton or filling as a pillow, and a gray blanket that was sure to cause a night of itching. The sink was so close to the bed that a person could barely fit in between- I’m sure the lower bunkmate had to deal with a lot of butts during those times! The doors were heavy steel painted mostly blue. The locks had been removed, but I closed the door just to get a feel of what it would be like. Even knowing that the door was unlocked, I still felt nervous for those few minutes, wondering, “What if the door gets stuck and I can’t get out?” Imagine having that same thought for years- the first night for inmates had to be terrifying.

All of the upper level cells had a gate in front of the doors so that the inmates didn’t jump off. As I made my way down the long walkway I came to a cell with a plaque on it- Cell 13, East Cell Bock. On February 6, 1960, an inmate, who was serving a 15-year sentence for assault with intent to kill, committed suicide by setting himself on fire in that exact cell with a match and lighter fluid. He was 22 at the time of his death.

Moving toward the other side of the cell block, I came to another look out point with a sign that said Photo Opportunity! And indeed it was. I was able to get a shot of the entire E cell block, floor to ceiling. It was massive, and so crazy to think that at one time it was filled with inmates. The orange glow from the lights above led me into an area that was listed as the library. This used to be the original hospital wing. As I walked in, I could see the circulation and information desk in the center of the room, as well as pillars lined the center of the space all the way down to the back window. Papers and old magazines were spread out across the desk, showing some of the reading material that inmates had access to back then. Some household catalogs, perhaps for planning for when they were released, and lots of auto magazines. Exiting the library gave me a view of an awesome spiral staircase that ran along side of the cell block. Painted green at one time, the cold steel showed through all the way up as the orange light reflected off it from the ceiling.

Directly below was the old Hospital wing, another space similar to the library above with no beds or anything left. A stockpile of some furniture sat in the corner with a desk and chairs; next to it was a massive green painted steel door that was used for storage. While I was walking to the back of the area there was a bride having wedding photos taken- this is actually a popular thing around here. People wrote their names on dust caked windows giving the look of clear graffiti and turning that window into an art piece.

I then made my way back downstairs to the main level of the cell block; this time I had a totally different perspective on how big this area was. It was one thing to look at it from up above, but totally different to see it from ground level looking up at the six tiers above. The orange lights were on flickering and showed the detail of all the jail cell doors. The bottom row did not have a gate out in front. Below the hospital wing on the ground level was a community shower: a large area with at least 30+ shower heads where inmates could clean up. Making my way to the other side of the cell block was an open area where they showed some filming props from the movie Shawshank Redemption including the tunnel that was dug by Andy. The tunnel was made from PVC pipes- obviously in person it looked nothing like in the movie. However, the display included pictures and explanations of how scenes in the tunnel were filmed, including the different lighting, camera angles, and other effects, including a comparison shot of the front of the tunnel from the movie, vs. the front of the actual tunnel. People were able to stand at one end of the tunnel and have someone else take their picture from the other side a cool idea! (Photos of tunnel are not mine)

Just beyond the tunnel were the Solitary Confinement cells, where some inmates would spend up to 2 months for being insubordinate or causing issues within the prison. These doors were solid with only a little window and food pass thru. Each cell only held a toilet and a single bunk- in almost total darkness. At one time there were also smaller semi-circular cells called the 8 and 8. The prisoners would be locked up standing for 8 hours between the bars and then 8 hours on the cell floor. Originally there were no cots in solitary- inmates would just lie on the concrete floor in 90 degree heat to be kept from getting sick. In contrast to the cells of complete darkness, they also had inmates in cells of 24 hours of light. Either way does not sound enjoyable! And even worse for the inmates who had to suffer time in solitary- the time they spent in the hole was also counted as dead time and did not count as time served.

After coming out of solitary, I made my way to the final part of the cell blocks- the West cell block. Between East and West, West was considered the older wing of the 2. The cells here seemed ever smaller and the doorways to enter almost half the size as the other ones. These doors had a single piece of cell bars that closed like a door next to the brick work around the window and the adjoining cell. In the east wing, the cell doors were on a track covering the entire front of the cell when open. There was also no front gating in this area of the block. All of the upper cells had more walkway in front, but no gate to keep inmates from jumping over. There was a short railing, about waist-high, all of the way down. There were also some slightly larger cells that would house four inmates. Still not a comfortable situation.

One of the cool things about Mansfield is the many options for the types of tours they offer. I chose the self-guided tour. Other options include a tour with a guide, who walks groups of people around and gives them info throughout the place; the overnight inmate experience (which sounds cool as hell btw); and paranormal tours, which look at the ghostly history of the Ohio State Reformatory. This tour was something that I would go back multiple times for, to try the different options. There is so much history within these walls, not only from a Hollywood standpoint, but from being an active prison all its own. If you get the chance, I highly suggest making the drive to Mansfield and checking it out for yourself. Downtown Mansfield has other locations of where the Shawshank Redemption was filmed, including exterior shots of Brooks house. When the tour ends, you will exit near the giftshop, and there is tons of great movie memorabilia and other souvenirs to remember this place by.

If you would like to check out the video walk through I did, you can see that here: Subscriptions are greatly appreciated!

Click here to be taken to the Mansfield Reformatory Page for information on tours and more history.

Thanks for joining me on this tour of the Mansfield (Ohio State Reformatory) Tour!

Ryan Jakubowski


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