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Touring the Historic Ohio State Reformatory

Lisa is a travel enthusiast who loves exploring historic places. She has visited the Ohio State Reformatory on multiple occasions.

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An Intriguing Place with an Eerie Vibe

The Ohio State Reformatory (also known as the Mansfield Reformatory) has grown significantly in popularity over the past six years and has attracted tourists from all over the world. Its remarkable, castle-like appearance invites many to its doorstep each year. However, the reformatory's disturbing stories and eerie vibe have been known to drive some people out. Countless videographers and paranormal investigators have actually flocked to this place for its dark past, and others are inspired by the message of hope that the reformatory once instilled in its residents.

The Ohio State Reformatory is sometimes referred to as "Hollywood's favorite prison" due to the fact that it served as a filming location for numerous movies, including The Shawshank Redemption, Air Force One, Tango & Cash, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Escape Plan: The Extractors. It appeared on television shows like Ghost Adventures, Scariest Places on Earth, Buzzfeed Unsolved, and Ghost Hunters. It was also used in numerous music videos, including Godsmack's video "Awake" and Lil Wayne's video "Go DJ."

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A Brief History

The Ohio State Reformatory is located near the active Mansfield Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio of the United States. The area in which the reformatory stands was initially occupied by Camp Mordecai Bartley, a training camp for Civil War soldiers in 1862.

The reformatory was designed by architect Levi T. Scofield, and construction began in 1886. Former inmates often call it the "castle" because of its imposing architectural design, which is a combination of the styles Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Queen Anne. Scofield chose these particular styles as a means of encouraging inmates to become reborn into their spiritual lives.

The Ohio State Reformatory received its first 150 offenders on September 15, 1896. These prisoners were brought to the reformatory by train from Columbus, Ohio. They were immediately put to work constructing the prison's sewer system, along with the 25 foot-tall stone wall surrounding the complex. However, construction was not completed until 1910 due to funding issues.

The reformatory was developed for first time offenders and was intended to prevent them from committing future crimes. Within its walls, young men were taught the importance of education and prayer. They were required to attend church services regularly. They were also required to take courses and obtain at least an 8th grade education. Additionally, inmates had to learn a trade so that they would be capable of finding work once they were released from prison.

As the years passed, the prison began housing murderers and other dangerous criminals, and it was converted into a maximum security facility by the early 1960s. In the 1980s, inmates filed a class action lawsuit that cited overcrowding and inhumane conditions as reasons for the suit. The Ohio State Reformatory was forced to close on December 31st, 1990 via federal court order. From 1896 until its closure in 1990, this prison had housed around 155,000 men and saw over 215 deaths.

Aerial view of the Ohio State Reformatory, photograph taken in 1950

Aerial view of the Ohio State Reformatory, photograph taken in 1950

Prison Museum

The Ohio State Reformatory contains an impressive collection of historic pieces and movie props. The items are displayed in numerous rooms on the first and second floors of the administration wing. Among its collection is an electric chair with a long history of use in executions. You will also see original items that were used to restrain inmates and handmade weapons confiscated from them. Movie props used during the filming of The Shawshank Redemption include articles of clothing, books from the prison library, and the letter Andy left for Red towards the end of the movie.

Many other historic items and movie props from The Shawshank Redemption are on display at the Ohio State Reformatory. However, I will keep them a surprise for those who are interested in visiting the prison and do not wish to know about everything in the museum before they visit. Also, it is important to note that the reformatory frequently undergoes renovations, and new artifacts are added to its museum each year. While most of the historic items are on permanent display, some are only on temporary loan to the prison.

Electric chair and face mask used during executions

Electric chair and face mask used during executions

Nicknamed "Old Sparky," this electric chair was used for executions at the Ohio Penitentiary. It was brought to the Ohio State Reformatory in 2015 and will remain on permanent display. 312 men and 3 women were put to death in this chair from 1897 to 1963. The first person to be executed in it was William Haas, a 17 year-old boy from Hamilton County, Ohio who was responsible for the murder of Mrs. William Brady. The last person to be executed in the chair was Donald Reinbolt, a 29 year-old inmate from Franklin County, Ohio who murdered Edgar L. Weaver, a grocer from Columbus, Ohio.

Sponges used for executions in the electric chair

Sponges used for executions in the electric chair

Shanks and other contraband taken from inmates

Shanks and other contraband taken from inmates

A movie prop from The Shawshank Redemption. This hat was worn by Morgan Freeman in multiple scenes during his portrayal of Red.

A movie prop from The Shawshank Redemption. This hat was worn by Morgan Freeman in multiple scenes during his portrayal of Red.

More movie props from The Shawshank Redemption. These are the letter and tin container left by Andy.

More movie props from The Shawshank Redemption. These are the letter and tin container left by Andy.

Administration Wing

Once you finish learning about the artifacts on the first floor, you will proceed to some of the most important rooms of the administration wing. The first floor contains a reception room and offices for the Board of Managers, warden, clerk, and bookkeeper. The second floor contains additional offices, one of which appeared in The Shawshank Redemption.

Warden Norton's office from The Shawshank Redemption

Warden Norton's office from The Shawshank Redemption

Wall safe in Warden Norton's office

Wall safe in Warden Norton's office

Many people believe this is the room where Arthur Glattke (warden of the Ohio State Reformatory from 1935 to 1959) suffered a heart attack and died. However, the heart attack actually occurred while he was working in his office on the first floor, and he did not die in the room. Guards had rushed Arthur to the Mansfield General Hospital, where he died shortly after his arrival.

Residential Quarters

The reformatory's residential quarters are also situated within the administration wing and can be found on the second and third floors. The warden and his family lived on the second floor, along with the chaplain who held church services for Protestant inmates. The assistant warden lived on the third floor. A few guards even took up residence on the second and third floors. By the 1960s, administrators at the Ohio State Reformatory (like the warden) no longer lived inside the prison.

The Glattkes were certainly the most interesting residents of the reformatory's administration wing. Arthur Glattke and his wife Helen had lived there for many years and even raised their two sons within the prison walls. They enjoyed a lavish lifestyle completely opposite of the inmates who lived in the same building. Arthur and Helen sometimes even hosted dinner parties at the reformatory, and the children invited their friends over to play.

However, all was not perfect for the family, and they experienced a shocking tragedy in 1950 that is still being questioned today. News reports claim Helen was getting ready for church one Sunday morning in November when she was accidentally shot by a loaded handgun that fell from a closet shelf. It was believed that the gun fell out when she was reaching for her jewelry box in the closet, and the gun fired a round into her left lung when it hit the floor. Helen was taken to the Mansfield General Hospital, where she died two days after the incident.

Some people believe the gunshot was not an accident, stating that it is highly unlikely the gun would have been capable of firing up at her chest from the floor. Rumors that Arthur was having an extramarital affair had circulated amongst some of the guards and other staff members during the last year leading up to Helen's death. They believed that Helen found out about the affair, and Arthur either murdered her himself or had someone else do so to prevent a divorce and preserve his good reputation. However, an outside investigation was never conducted, and many claim that Arthur was a well respected man who loved his wife and was not capable of such an act.

One of the living rooms within the residential quarters

One of the living rooms within the residential quarters

Most of the residential rooms are spacious, and some still contain old furniture that was left behind by their owners decades ago. Old light fixtures hang from the ceilings of some rooms, and paint peels from the walls surrounding you. There are even sections that have peeled back to reveal layer upon layer of lead paint and wallpaper. This gives you a glimpse of what the walls looked like during different years throughout the prison's time in operation. The mood and look of these rooms made them the perfect filming spots for The Shawshank Redemption. In fact, one of the movie's most iconic scenes was filmed in a residential room.

Residential quarters that appeared in The Shawshank Redemption

Residential quarters that appeared in The Shawshank Redemption

Brooks' boarding house room from The Shawshank Redemption

Brooks' boarding house room from The Shawshank Redemption

Messages carved by Brooks and Red inside the boarding room

Messages carved by Brooks and Red inside the boarding room

Residential room for the chaplain. This also served as the parole board room in The Shawshank Redemption.

Residential room for the chaplain. This also served as the parole board room in The Shawshank Redemption.

Education at the Reformatory

As you continue down the hallway past some of the residential quarters, you will come across a small classroom where inmates learned basic courses. Other areas were utilized for teaching as well, including one of the prison's out buildings that was demolished in the 1990s.

Education was seen as a key factor in the reformation of inmates and was required at the Ohio State Reformatory until the 1970s. Inmates took core classes like reading, writing, mathematics, and social sciences. Debate and musical programs were offered as extracurriculars. They also learned trades in engineering, plumbing, and electrical mechanics.

The Ohio State Reformatory even had a state-certified high school onsite, known as Fields High School. It was constructed in 1962 and was the first accredited school within a penal institution in Ohio. The reformatory invited college professors from nearby Ashland College to teach at the facility, and some inmates took advantage of this opportunity to further their education. The first class to graduate from Fields High School received their diplomas in 1965. This was the first class to graduate from a state-certified high school within a penal institution.

Job Opportunities For Inmates

Learning a trade was very important, as it could help inmates secure a job and become independent once they were released from prison. The reformatory actually was a great place for inmates to acquire useful skills and gain more work experience.

One of the most surprising facts about the Ohio State Reformatory is that it was basically self-sufficient, offering a wide range of job opportunities for inmates. It contained furniture, clothing, and shoe factories, as well as a barber shop, printing shop, and machine shop. There was even a power plant and identification department onsite. Most of the food that was served at the prison came from an honors farm located on the property and maintained by inmates. The farm produced a large variety of crops and was home to dairy cows, chickens, and pigs.

The furniture factory was probably the most impressive of the reformatory's manufacturing plants. Inmates produced a huge array of items at this factory, including beautifully ornate dressers and tables. Much of the prison's furniture came from this plant. At one point, furniture made at the reformatory even adorned the governor's office and other state offices in Columbus, Ohio. Inmates also manufactured furnishings for other public offices, state institutions, courthouses, county homes, and schools. Some of the items are still in use today.

School desk made by an inmate at the Ohio State Reformatory

School desk made by an inmate at the Ohio State Reformatory

Additional trade schools and business training classes were added in the 1930s, which gave inmates an even wider range of possibilities for self improvement. Some inmates had the option to work in honors camps outside the walls. Others became trustees, working in offices and residential areas within the reformatory. The residential trustees were often known as "house boys," and were granted comfortable living quarters on the same floors as the warden and assistant warden. Sometimes they were even allowed to leave the prison to run small errands for the warden's family.

Faith and Prayer at the Reformatory

Once you finish touring the administration wing and nearby rooms, you will proceed upstairs to the reformatory's chapel. The chapel is located near a central guard room and is situated between the east and west cell blocks.

Administrators at the Ohio State Reformatory believed religion was just as important as education, and inmates were required to attend mass. They were also provided bibles and other religious reading material. The reformatory initially contained four different chapels and held services every Sunday. It offered chapel services for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Christian Scientists, and others, although most inmates were Protestant. The Protestant chaplain was the only minister who resided within the prison's walls. By the 1970s, inmates were no longer required to attend mass, but they were still encouraged to do so.

The chapel

The chapel

Chapel wall behind the podium

Chapel wall behind the podium

The "Jesus Room," accessible via staircase off of the west cell block

The "Jesus Room," accessible via staircase off of the west cell block

A depiction of Jesus Christ located within the "Jesus Room"

A depiction of Jesus Christ located within the "Jesus Room"

East and West Cell Blocks

After your tour of the chapel, you will move on to the dismal east and west cell blocks. The cells are in various states of deterioration, and many are missing their sinks and toilets. It is important to note that these cell blocks are not heated well and can get quite cold during the winter months, so you will need to dress warmly if you choose to visit the prison around that time of the year.

As one would expect, conditions tended to be fairly harsh for the inmates living in these cell blocks. For one thing, there was no air conditioning. Both blocks contained windows that could be opened in the summer to circulate air, but the upper tiers were always extremely hot during these months. The cell blocks were heated in the winter, but it was difficult to keep them warm due to their large size and the continuous opening and closing of doors. Prison cells on the lower levels were especially cold during the winter months.

The reformatory also experienced severe overcrowding for many years. Between 1920 and 1930, its inmate population tripled due to criminal activity associated with liquor trafficking. Matters became even worse when the nation’s worst prison fire occurred at the Ohio Penitentiary in April, 1930. 600 inmates from the penitentiary were transferred to other state facilities. The Ohio State Reformatory received 200 of these inmates, many of whom were violent, hardened criminals. They were locked away in the reformatory's west attic to prevent them from negatively influencing young, first time offenders.

Between 1930 and 1940, federal prison populations drastically increased again as a result of the Great Depression. Many unemployed individuals committed crimes to get themselves arrested because they were desperate for food and a place to stay. Despite the major population increase, the Ohio State Reformatory continued its efforts to reform inmates.

By the late 1970s, the prison had fallen into a severe state of deterioration, which made living conditions unbearable for inmates. They recall being extremely cold in the winter due to broken windows in the cell blocks that were never replaced. Some inmates attempted to stay warm by burning things in their cells. In the summer, they were sometimes so hot that it was difficult for them to breath. The prison also had a serious problem with cockroach infestations during the 1970s and 1980s. One former inmate who was interviewed mentioned that he would stuff toilet paper in his nose and ears to keep out the roaches.

East cell block

East cell block

The east cell block was completed in 1908 and holds the record for the world's largest free-standing steel cell block. It contains six tiers with a total of 600 cells and could hold 1,200 inmates.

East cell block tiers

East cell block tiers

Fourth tier of the east cell block

Fourth tier of the east cell block

A typical cell designed for one inmate

A typical cell designed for one inmate

Cells on this block were extremely small and cramped, measuring only 6 feet by 8 feet. They were designed to house one inmate per cell. However, they ended up holding two men each by 1934, and some even held three men. Each cell contained two steel bunks anchored to the wall, a sink, a toilet, a small table with drawers, and a stool. The cells did not have hot water, so some inmates would fill up their sinks and heat the water using wires from the light fixtures above them. Not surprisingly, there were a few reports of inmates electrocuting themselves as a result of this action.

Cell containing bunk beds to accommodate two inmates

Cell containing bunk beds to accommodate two inmates

Overcrowding of the reformatory led to serious tension and increased violence among the inmates, especially when they were crammed into the same cells together with little room for movement. Reports of stabbings within the cells were certainly not rare. Diseases often plagued inmates as well and spread like wildfires due to overcrowding. Influenza and tuberculosis were most common, claiming many lives within the prison's walls.

James Lockhart's cell

James Lockhart's cell

One of the most horrific events that occurred in the east cell block was the suicide of James Lockhart. James was devastated after being denied parole in 1960 and could no longer endure the confines of the reformatory. He chose to end his life by setting himself on fire in his cell. He did so by dousing himself with lighter fluid from the furniture factory and lighting a match. The fire was so large that it spread to cell 14 and singed the inmate who lived in it. James died shortly after guards arrived outside his cell, and inmates reported watching them drag his charred body down the hall.

Inside Lockhart's cell

Inside Lockhart's cell

James Lockhart's death was just one of many gruesome events that occurred within the cell blocks and nearby rooms, and inmates did not always die by their own hands or those of other inmates. Instead, some lost their lives as a result of neglect and severe beatings from guards.

West cell block

West cell block

The west cell block is the original incarceration block. It housed the first 150 inmates who came to the prison in 1896. This block contains five tiers with a total of 360 cells and could hold 750 men. Most of the cells were designed to hold two men each, but some held four each. Inmates who lived together in groups of four were typically housed according to their trades.

Opposite end of the west cell block

Opposite end of the west cell block

First tier of the west cell block

First tier of the west cell block

A remodeled cell. This is what a typical cell looked like before the reformatory's deterioration.

A remodeled cell. This is what a typical cell looked like before the reformatory's deterioration.

While cells at the Ohio State Reformatory were not comfortable by any means, the east and west cell blocks did have a surprising amenity that was not provided in other prisons. Arthur Glattke implemented many reforms during his time as warden from 1935 to 1959. One of these reforms was the addition of piped-in radio music in the cell blocks. However, inmates likely did not get to enjoy this feature after Arthur passed away.

Solitary Confinement (The Hole)

Once you finish your tour of the east and west cell blocks, you will move on to the creepy solitary confinement block. Cells in this area are known as the "hole," and they often drove inmates to the brink of insanity or suicide. The block contains dozens of cells, some of which were not constructed until the 1970s when crime at the prison skyrocketed. The cells from the 1970s contained solid steel doors with no openings for inmates to look through. However, the much older cells in this block actually had open bars that allowed inmates to see into the hallway and hear each other.

In 1932, Merrill Chandler, Chester Probaski, and a few other inmates took advantage of this weakness in the cell design and escaped solitary confinement. Merrill was the first one to leave his cell after he pried open a loose latch on his cell door using a piece of metal from a neighboring inmate. Afterward, Merrill searched a supply cabinet and found a large piece of angled iron, which he used in an attack on guardsman Frank Hanger. Merrill knocked him unconscious, stole his keys to the solitary confinement cells, and unlocked the doors to each inmate's cell. Chester approached Frank's bloody body and took his gun from him. However, he cast it aside before a group of guards and Mansfield City police officers entered the confinement block.

The guards and officers stopped the inmates before they had a chance to escape to the prison yard. Frank was soon taken to the reformatory's infirmary, where he died from severe head trauma that he had sustained as a result of Merrill's attack. Merrill and Chester were both sentenced to death for their involvement in the escape attempt, and they were executed by electric chair in 1933. The chair in which they were put to death is the same one that is on display in the reformatory's museum.

A few years later, another major event occurred within the solitary confinement block. 120 inmates were condemned to solitary confinement after a riot broke out in the east cell block. The rioters were forced to share a total of 12 solitary confinement cells, with 10 inmates occupying each cell. They were crammed together for one week without food or water. Many of the inmates nearly died or almost went insane.

Older section of the solitary confinement block

Older section of the solitary confinement block

Section of the solitary confinement block containing cells from the 1970s

Section of the solitary confinement block containing cells from the 1970s

Inmates who were sent to this block usually had to spend at least three days in confinement. The cells were kept at a constant 90 °F and had no lights. Those who were doing lengthy stretches of time in solitary confinement could only shower once a week. Inmates had to eat their meals in their cells and normally only received one full meal a day. A typical meal could consist of peas, half a potato, and a slice of bread. However, the frequency and type of meals varied throughout the years. Some inmates reported that they only received a slice of bread and water twice a day. Others reported receiving two full meals a day, as well as bread and broth twice daily.

Solitary confinement cell constructed in the 1970s

Solitary confinement cell constructed in the 1970s

Infirmary

Another area tourists have the option to visit is the prison infirmary. This is where inmates would receive medical attention if they were sick or injured, and many died of influenza and tuberculosis. Some inmates have claimed that it was quite common for patients to receive no care from medical staff for days. Most of the inmates were neglected, and many even starved to death because they were too weak to stop other patients from stealing their food. A frequent lack of adequate staff supervision allowed stronger patients to take advantage of those who were debilitated.

Main section of the infirmary that housed patients

Main section of the infirmary that housed patients

Central Guard Room

One of your last stops on the tour is the central guard room, a large hall situated between the east and west cell blocks. The hall contains a caged section with portraits of Stalin and Lenin which appeared in the prison scenes in Air Force One. It also features two glass walls that provide a clear view of each cell block. Other than this, the central guard room is simply an open space with rows of support columns. The room was once used as a visitors hall for inmates and their families to meet once a month. It also served as the prison cafeteria in The Shawshank Redemption.

Caged area of the central guard room

Caged area of the central guard room

Portrait of Joseph Stalin which appeared in Air Force One

Portrait of Joseph Stalin which appeared in Air Force One

Portrait of Vladimir Lenin which appeared in Air Force One

Portrait of Vladimir Lenin which appeared in Air Force One

Interested In Touring This Famous Prison?

The Ohio State Reformatory is open seven days a week, from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Guided tours and self-guided tours are both offered. You will have the opportunity to explore many other areas not discussed in this article, including the library and gymnasium. However, be advised that there may be times where you will not have access to certain rooms due to renovations that are underway.


The following is a list of tours and events offered at the Ohio State Reformatory:

1. Hollywood Meets History- This guided tour combines movie history with the reformatory's fascinating past. Your guide will take you to locations that appeared in various movies, including The Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One. You will also learn important historical facts about the prison as you tour these locations.

2. Beyond the Bars- This guided tour only focuses on the reformatory's history and provides access to areas that are off the normal tour route. Some areas you will get to visit include the west attic, sub-basement, and exercise yard. You will hear stories about inmate punishments and learn about the inner workings of the prison as well.

3. Inmate Confessions- This tour is guided by a former inmate of the Ohio State Reformatory. Your guide will take you to some of the most important areas of the prison and share their personal experiences regarding life behind bars at the reformatory.

4. Ghost Hunts- The Ohio State Reformatory offers a paranormal program for those who are interested in its supernatural aspect. You can take the Ghost Hunt Challenge if you are a beginner or the Intermediate/Advanced Ghost Hunt if you are a more experienced investigator. The reformatory also offers a 2-hour Ghost Walk with paranormal guides and Ghost Hunting 101.

5. Escape From Blood Prison- This event is available once a year through the entire month of October. You will be faced with horrifying displays in the east cell block, solitary confinement block, and other areas of the prison. You will also run for your life from monsters and the criminally insane. This event is not for the faint of heart.

6. The Shawshank Trail- This is available as a guided or self-guided tour. You will begin your tour at the Ohio State Reformatory. After you finish exploring the reformatory, you will drive to over a dozen filming sites from The Shawshank Redemption, including Pugh Cabin (appeared in the opening scene of the movie), the Brewer Hotel (Brooks is shown looking over at this building, which becomes his new residence after his release from Shawshank Prison), and the Crosby Advisory Group building (served as the Main National Bank in the film).

© 2021 Lisa Pizzoferrato

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