The Ohio State Reformatory, best known for being the setting for the movie The Shawshank Redemption, is a historic circa 1896 prison north of Mansfield, Ohio. It was converted into a tourist attraction after closing in 1990.
The campaign for a prison in north-central Ohio began at the insistence of General Roeliff Brinkerhoff after the Civil War had concluded. 4 It was not until April 14, 1884, that the state legislature passed a law that created the Intermittent Penitentiary to serve as an intermediate step between the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster and the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. 1 The State Board of Managers examined a site offered by the city of Mansfield on May 9, 1885, 4 and on May 20, a local delegation met with the Board in Columbus and pitched Mansfield as an ideal location for a state prison. The Board returned to Mansfield on May 23 to review the site again.
A general meeting was held on May 25 to appoint a committee for the construction of the prison. 4 Four businessmen in Mansfield, Martin Bushnell, B.F. Crawford, Samuel N. Ford, and Michael Harter offered the state 30 acres of land with an option for an additional 150 acres, 2 and the city, after much fundraising, came up with $10,000 to acquire the initial acreage. 1 2
At a Board of Managers meeting on June 2, it announced that the proposed $1.3 million 1 2 penitentiary would be located in Mansfield 4 and that it would authorize the purchase of the remaining 150 acres offered by the businessmen for $20,000. 1 2 4
Levi T. Scofield of Cleveland designed the new prison in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which gave the exterior the appearance of several castles in western Europe. 1 2 3 Its two wings were designed to hold four tiers of 150 cells each, with the possibility of a vertical expansion for an additional level; an additional cell block was also planned to hold an additional 250 inmates. The administration building would hold a reception room and offices for the Board of Managers, warden, clerk, and bookkeeper on the first level, and living rooms for the deputy warden and other officers on the second and third floors. 2 A residence for the warden would be separated from the administration building with a garden court.
A contract was let to Cohen & McCabe for earthwork on July 21, 1886, with a construction contract being awarded to Hancock & Dow on June 9. 1 A cornerstone was laid for the new prison on November 4. The penitentiary was erected under the supervision of F.F. Schnitzer, and in return for his services, Schnitzer was presented with a silver double inkwell by the governor at the opening ceremony. 2
Funding complications from an economic crisis in 1890 plagued the penitentiary’s construction. 4
Additionally, the members of the state’s House of Representatives voted in favor of converting the prison into an insane asylum, 2 4 as the idea of reforming young men did not appeal to lawmakers who regarded it as nothing more than an experiment. 4 But with some political maneuvering by Hon. C.M. Gaumer, then a member of the House from Richland County, the prison project was put back on track. To further solidify support for the prison, Mansfield citizens invited the House of Representatives on a trip to the New York State Reformatory in Elmira, New York. 4 The legislators were impressed by New York’s system and there was no further opposition to Ohio’s reformatory.
The still-unnamed prison was named the Ohio State Reformatory by an act of the legislature on April 24, 1891. 2
The first 150 inmates were brought to the new Reformatory on September 15 4/17 2, 1896. 2 4 With much of the prison unfinished, inmates were used as laborers, installing a sewer system and a 25-foot stone wall, 2 and later a more considerable heating and lighting plant and six brick outbuildings. 4
A trade school was soon established where inmates manufactured shoes, furniture, vehicles, harnesses, tools, and other implements. 4 In 1908, a new six-story cell block, the largest free-standing steel cell block in the world, opened on the east side of the Reformatory. 1
As early as 1933, the Ohio State Reformatory was cited as being overcrowded and unsanitary, and that a large number of inmates had little or no rehabilitative values. 1 An evaluation of the prison in 1973 called for its demolition and for the construction of several smaller institutions that could hold no more than 500 inmates total. The Counsel for Human Dignity, a coalition of church and civic groups, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the 2,200 inmates at Ohio State in 1978 claiming that the prisoner’s constitutional rights were being violated due to the inhumane conditions of the facility.
As a result of a prisoners’ class action suit, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in 1983 ordered the prison closed by the end of 1986. 1 The order to cease operations was delayed until 1990 over delays in constructing the replacement penitentiary at the rear of the existing prison.
The Ohio State Reformatory was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 1995, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society was formed to conduct tours and raise funds for the building’s rehabilitation.
In the Media
The Ohio State Reformatory has been featured in numerous television programs and movies. In 1975, Harry and Walter in Harry and Walter Go To New York spent some time behind bars at the prison, and the facility was used for several scenes in Tango & Cash in 1989, and again in the Shawshank Redemption in 1994. 1 The complex was also used as a stand-in for a Russian prison in the 1997 movie Air Force One.
- “Tale of Two Cities The Journey from OSR to ManCI.” Mansfield News Journal 9 Dec. 1990. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. 2 Apr. 2014. Article.
- Brake, Sherri. “The Birth of the Ohio State Reformatory.” The Haunted History of the Ohio State Reformatory. Charleston: History Press, 2010.
- “Ohio State Reformatory.” Dictionary of Ohio Historic Places. Ed. Lorrie K. Owen. St. Clair Shores: Somerset, 1999. pp. 1207-08.
- Baughman, Abraham J. “Ohio State Reformatory.” History of Richland County, Ohio, from 1808 to 1908. Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1908. pp. 300-09.