Time Served at the Ohio Reformatory

Ohio Reformatory Cells

I can finally tell you that I’ve been to prison. And it was one of my kids that drove me there, literally.

Marina is a history teacher. She’s always looking for historical adventures in the state. Today we settled on a visit to the Ohio Reformatory in Mansfield. And yes, she drove.

The Ohio Reformatory is located in Mansfield, Ohio. This picture is of the outside of the prison. It was designed to look like a castle, made out of stone.
The Ohio Reformatory was designed to look like a castle. There aren’t even any fire escapes. Instead, the internal staircases are made of steal, so they won’t burn during a fire.

The Ohio Reformatory was built between 1886 and 1910. The original architect on the project was Levi T. Scofield. He designed several other Ohio buildings, including the Athens Lunatic Asylum (The Ridges) in Athens and the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Cleveland.

History of Ohio Reformatory in Mansfield

At the time of construction there were only two facilities available in the state of Ohio. The Boys Industrial School was located in Lancaster and was reserved for boys. And the State Penitentiary was located in Columbus and housed all criminal offenders older than 18 years of age.

Photo of the warden's office at the Ohio Reformatory as seen in The Shawshank Redemption. The scene shows a desk and chair positioned in front of a large window.
You probably remember the warden’s office from The Shawshank Redemption. It is still set just like the movie.

Because there was only one facility available for all adult offenders, this meant all prisoners were housed together. First-time offenders were incarcerated in the same place as hardened criminals who were imprisoned for violent crimes. With this model of operation, repeat offenders were the norm.

Ohio Reformatory

The facility in Mansfield was constructed as a true reformatory. First-time and non-violent offenders were transferred to the Ohio Reformatory. The first group arrived in 1896. Prisoners were not just to serve time, but rather truly reform their lives. They were expected to work, attend church services and take classes to attain an eighth-grade education.

Initially, inmates were to stay at the Ohio Reformatory for 18 months. If they showed progress, and completed their education through eighth grade, they would be released after that time. If not, they would receive another 18 months at the facility. This was a successful model with a low recidivism rate. More than 60 percent of the inmates who completed their stay did not repeat offend.

A bedroom scene with a bed and dresser. The floor is hard wood and the room is in disrepair.
The halfway house room that was occupied by both Brooks and Red upon release was staged in the guard quarters.

By the 1960s, partly due to overcrowding at other prisons within the state, the reform model was abandoned. The Ohio Reformatory was converted to a maximum-security facility. Over the years the conditions deteriorated significantly until a group of prisoners sued the state of Ohio in the 1980s. As a result, the prison was finally ordered closed in 1990.

The Ohio Reformatory in Hollywood

The Ohio Reformatory has quite a history with Hollywood. Most of us Ohioans know that the prison, and the Mansfield area, featured prominently in the film The Shawshank Redemption.

A wide hallway in disrepair. The floor is wooden. This is in the guard quarters at the Ohio Reformatory.
This hallway goes to the guard quarters.

The movie, starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, was filmed at the prison in 1993. The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
Scenes from the movie, including those in the warden’s office and of the exterior were filmed at the Ohio Reformatory.

However, the cells at the prison are small, much too small to fit the equipment necessary for the movie making process. The film crew secured a warehouse location in downtown Mansfield. They built cells there that were suitable for filming.

This is a history museum showing artifacts and information about Ohio prisons.
There are a number of artifacts from the history of Ohio prisons, including an electric chair originally used at the Ohio Penitentiary.

Other scenes, such as the oak tree where Red finds the box from Andy are located around the city. If you’re interested, you can take the Shawshank Trail, a driving tour. Clicking through to the website, you can find all of the Shawshank sites in the area.

The Ohio Reformatory features in other Hollywood movies as well. A total of five movies have been filmed in part at the prison, as well as a number of videos and television shows. Tango and Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone was filmed there as well as scenes from Harrison Ford thriller Air Force One.

History and Hollywood Tour

Currently the Ohio Reformatory offers a number of different tours including self-guided options and even a tour led by a former inmate of the facility. These tours, along with a number of special events at the location, help to support the mission of the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. This non-profit group uses the funds to maintain and improve the facility.

Rows of prison cells at the Ohio Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio.
It’s not hard to imagine the rough conditions of the prison. It was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.

Marina is enthralled with anything historical, and I am a big fan of Shawshank. The History and Hollywood Tour seemed tailor made for us. Our tour guide Veronica was well versed on both the Shawshank history and the history of the prison.

We were able to view areas of the prison where notable Shawshank scenes were filmed. The history of the facility was equally interesting. Veronica was a history student who did extensive research, including her thesis, at the Ohio Reformatory. She was very knowledgeable and entertaining.

A prison cell including a toilet, sink and bunk beds in the abandoned Ohio Reformatory prison in Ohio.
The cells were very small, too small for filming.

Our tour took about two hours and involved climbing up and down several flights of stairs. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes. One important note if you plan to take the tour yourself: each guided tour includes a self-guided tour. Plan to arrive early or stay late so you can enjoy the self-guided experience as well.

Wooden pews line the inside of the chapel at the Ohio Reformatory. It has fallen into disrepair.
When the prison opened, all men were required to attend services in the chapel as part of the reform process. The pews are not original.

FindingOhio in Prison

Surprisingly, this was one of my favorite Ohio day trips. It was a lot of information and our tour guide made it a lot of fun.

There’s so much to see and do in Ohio. If you’re looking for some great ideas, check our Day Trips section to find your next adventure. Check back often as we’re posting new articles at least once a week. And, as always, we appreciate you sharing our content to your social media.