You’ve probably watched TV in your lifetime, so odds are that you’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption, or at least seen parts of it during its never-ending run on any of the television stations owned by Ted Turner.
Since its rather inauspicious release back in 1994, TV has been a major part of the equation for The Shawshank Redemption‘s rise in popularity, allowing people to watch it over and over again. Eventually, that repetition turned to love. The film is currently the highest rated film on IMDb’s list of the Top 250 films — it’s also my personal favorite movie.
But the film has another element going for it: the Ohio State Reformatory. The massive, stone structure in Mansfield, Ohio was the filming location of the beloved prison escape drama, and the building continues to live on as a time capsule for one of Hollywood’s finest achievements.
Yours truly had the opportunity to travel to the reformatory…and it didn’t disappoint.
A Fascinating History
First constructed in 1896, the facility was initially utilized as a reformatory school for boys. But even before the building was put into place, more than 4,000 Civil War soldiers were trained at what was then called Camp Mordecai Bartley, named after the governor of Ohio in the 1840’s. Even before Hollywood was established in the southern tip of California, this plot of land in Mansfield was already significant.
Once it was used for what it later became famous for, the Ohio State Reformatory (OSR) was home to about 155,000 prisoners during its time as an active correctional institution until it was closed in December of 1990. Deemed unsatisfactory for living (a class action lawsuit was filed for overcrowding and inhumane conditions), the prison closed down, scheduled to be demolished soon after.
And that’s when Hollywood stepped in. Well, to be fair, many films and television series have filmed at the location (some filmed when it still held inmates) including Tango & Cash and Air Force One, but the most famous use is still The Shawshank Redemption. Funny enough, since the site was scheduled for demolition, Frank Darabont and the rest of the crew involved in the movie were essentially allowed to use the facility as they pleased. As you might expect, they took full advantage of the opportunity.
After production of The Shawshank Redemption finished up, demolition still loomed over the structure; the walls that you see in the movie were even taken down as the deconstruction process finally went underway.
Thankfully, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society (MRPS) stepped in, urging state officials to cease their actions. The building then went to auction where the MRPS won control of the reformatory…for a price of $1. That’s right, $1! As a sign of goodwill, the state later gave the dollar back to the MRPS.
Today, the OSR is now a great place for tourism, with plenty of different angles to cover such as the aforementioned history in Hollywood, inmate life, and even the paranormal!
The Ohio State Reformatory Today
Before venturing into the OSR, my plucky tour guide offered the following advice to my group: “do not eat the paint.” After a hearty laugh from the group, she went on to explain that the original lead-based paint was still on the walls throughout the building. You can rest easy knowing that I kept my tongue firmly placed within my mouth. Still, this remark speaks to the MRPS’s love for this facility and its understanding of history. As the MRPS cleans and restores the reformatory, they’re making sure to honor the grounds (and don’t worry — the lead paint is becoming a non-factor).
In a word, the OSR is neat. Naturally, as a self-proclaimed movie buff, my favorite parts of the building included anything tied to The Shawshank Redemption. One of the first rooms I peered into was none other than the office in which Andy Dufresne played the beautiful ‘Sull’aria…che soave zeffiretto’ over the loud speakers for the entire prison yard to hear. Fun fact: to this day the door into the office doesn’t have a window. That’s because it was never replaced after Captain Hadley smashed it down!
From there, you immediately enter the office of the warden played by the sinister Bob Gunton (his character is sinister — I’m sure Bob himself is a wonderful fellow). There you can view the famous safe in the wall and all its glory. These two rooms are set to become the Shawshank Museum within the reformatory after further restoration efforts are made.
What follows after these two stops is a maze-like journey through this perfectly symmetrical building (seriously, rays of light come together to form an X-shape in the true center of the penitentiary). You’ll find so many fascinating twists and turns in the architecture that lead to many areas not shown in The Shawshank Redemption. I’ll save those surprises for you when you decide to make your way to Mansfield sometime soon.
The bit of the tour that really struck me were the cells themselves. They’re tiny. They truly make Andy Dufresne’s cell look like a “one-bunk Hilton” as Warden Norton calls it. The cells that were part of my particular tour were for two prisoners, and they’re a snug fit for just one. The claims of inhumane conditions certainly became real during this part of the tour — it’s truly a sight to behold.
Throughout the entire tour, you’d be hard pressed to find someone in your tour group that isn’t muttering a famous line from Shawshank — I know I was! The communal love for the movie creates a fun, interactive bond with the rest of your tour group. The Shawshank Redemption is such a singular movie in that way. It holds an almost universal praise from the masses, many of whom claim it as their favorite movie.
But the MRPS does such a wonderful job of balancing the entertainment in the OSR for avid lovers of The Shawshank Redemption like me and those that just want a history lesson. You’ll see the tunnel Andy dug to freedom as well as learn what the daily activities were of inmates. If you’re lucky, you’ll even learn of some ghostly behavior on the grounds. It makes for such a unique tourism location!
*A little word for the wise: refrain from taking pictures from the back windows of the facility — there are two activity penitentiaries behind the OSR, and it’s a serious offense to take photos of an active facility!
The OSR has so many wonderful tourism opportunities. Both self-guided and guided tours are available — though I strongly recommend the guided tours. The guided options are as follows (with information from the MRPS website):
- History Meets Hollywood Tour: Explore the past through this unique tour, which takes guests on a journey through both the historical timeline of the prison and the equally iconic, fictional story of inmate Andy Dufresne from the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption. This tour also includes information on the warden’s living quarters and several other films and music videos filmed on site.
- Beyond the Bars Tour: Venture beyond the bars of the prison as your guide gives you access to areas not open to the general public. View the West Attic and hear stories of inmate punishment. See the “yard” where Andy and Red would sit and talk. Delve into the sub-basement and the inner workings of the Ohio State Reformatory. This tour contains extensive stair climbing.
- Inmate Tour: Real-Life behind bars may be difficult to understand unless you have lived it. Such is the case for tour guide, Michael Humphrey, who spent 14 months here in the late 1960’s. Walk through the prison as Michael leads you through a normal day for an inmate and hear stories that stick with Michael all these years later.
I went on the History Meets Hollywood Tour myself, and it was pretty wonderful!
For more information about tours and other opportunities at the OSR (including their annual ghost hunt!), please visit the MRPS’s website at www.mrps.org.
A special thanks goes out to everyone at the Ohio State Reformatory that made my trip (and this article) possible.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on The Shawshank Redemption and the Ohio State Reformatory? Comment down below!
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