Exploring the Ohio State Reformatory

The day after I went to the “Farm at Walnut Creek” I toured the Ohio State Reformatory. What a startling change it was to explore this old building when the day before I was in the peaceful and beautiful Amish countryside surrounded by animals. When I think of the Ohio Reformatory one word comes to mind – gritty! In fact, this is the grittiest building I have ever been in. Built during 1886 through 1910, it housed and reformed young first time offenders. Since it closed in 1990, It has mostly been left as it was with only a few rooms renovated. Almost every wall has peeling paint, unswept floors with missing tiles, pipes and iron railings corroded and rusted. Both the exterior and interior have a medieval castle feeling; dark and creepy. I learned about the building when I was reading a blog post from another traveler I follow. When I realized that the Reformatory was only a little more than an hour away from our campsite in Berlin, I knew I wanted to visit. This former prison is not only architecturally interesting, but also the setting for a movie I enjoyed, “Shawshank Redemption” which was almost entirely filmed here in 1994. It sounded like it would be an interesting and unique place and we had yet to visit a former prison in our travels.

Stand up of one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman, who played Red in Shawshank Redemption

The Reformatory offers several guided tours including self-guided, “History meets Hollywood,” evening ghost and a tour with an ex-inmate. I decided to take the self-guided and Mark decided to forego this attraction and headed off to do a little shopping in the nearby town of Mansfield. Most of the building can be seen on your own, but the tours offer more information and some extra rooms as well as the prison yard. I decided to do the self-guided and also obtained an audio wand that provided additional details at certain stops. Signs and arrows point the way throughout the building.

Andy and Red at one of the stops on the tour.

For those that haven’t seen the popular film, “Shawshank Redemption” is the story of the two main characters, Andy and Red who become friends while incarcerated. Andy who is the newcomer maintains his innocence, but Red has spent most of his life in prison and doesn’t expect to be paroled. The two men along with their friends deal with prison issues such as a ruthless warden, cruel guards and abusive inmates. Andy never gives up his dreams of a better future and does his best to encourage Red and also improve his own situation while at the prison. The photo below is of a room in the Reformatory that was used as a film scene of the hotel room of paroled inmate Brooks. You can see scratched on the ceiling beam, “BROOKS WAS HERE” and “SO WAS RED.”

Hotel room that Brooks used after parole

Another room used in the film was where the parole board met when they reviewed Red’s application for possible release.

Although I am not posting any photos of the prison warden’s living quarters, I was surprised at how many rooms were used for the family, taking up two floors of the facility. The photo below is the chapel where all inmates were required to attend services. It was in this room that I met a young couple and the man told me that both his father and brother had been incarcerated here. He explained that his father was here in the 70’s and his brother shortly before it closed in the 90’s. He said his brother who has been incarcerated at other facilities as well reported it was the worst place he had ever been imprisoned. The young man said that when his brother gets out soon, he wants to bring him back here so he can show him the cell that he used to live in.

Reformatory Chapel

The Guard Control Center is pictured below with the two cell blocks, west and east on either side. Another popular film was also shot here, “Air Force One” which starred Harrison Ford and was released in 1997. This action film was about terrorists taking the president’s plane hostage and demanding the release of a Russian prisoner. In one scene from the film, the Russian prisoner, General Radek is brought to this room prior to release. Unlike some of the others, this room has cleaned up floors and walls.

Guard Control Center

From here, the tour continues to the East Cell Block, where you step out on a walkway six tiers up. The area is very open with views of all the floors below. It was a little much for me with my fear of heights and I didn’t want to be walking by the cells and start feeling panicky. One lady I talked to found it scary and said she had a difficult time walking around up there. So, the coward I am, I took the elevator down.

View looking down the cell block from the top floor

The East Cell Block is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest free-standing steel cell block. The block could hold up to 1,200 men. It was quite a sight for me to stand and look up at this enormous and magnificent collection of cells. (Much better to look up than look down).

View of East Cell Block with stairway at the back to the levels
View of the enormous East Cell Block

Most of the cells I passed on the bottom floor were open and could be entered. These cells were tiny at 7’ by 9’ and housed two men. They continue to have the old bunk beds and some even have old mattresses. I saw a few people plunk themselves down on these disgusting mattresses and have someone take a photo of them. Visitors are supposedly warned to not close the cell doors when they enter as they can lock and the facility does not have keys to all of them. Being stuck in one of those cells would certainly put a huge damper on a visit! As can be imagined, they are dark, depressing and creepy.

I have only been locked in a jail cell once in my life and it was not an enjoyable experience. My job as a social worker required me to visit the local jails occasionally to visit clients. Most of the time I met with them in a common area or a small, unlocked room. But one time while at the men’s jail, I was led by a guard to the cell of the client I planned to interview. I was put inside and the door locked. When the guard left, she gave no indication when she was returning and the guard station was quite a distance away on the bottom floor (I was on the top). It was somewhat unnerving to be sitting there, listening to all the loud sounds of other inmates around us. I focused on asking questions, writing down answers and trying not to think that I was stuck in there. After about 40 minutes, one of the guards came down the hallway to put another inmate in a cell across from us. I stood up and made it known I was ready to go. Thankfully, I never visited that jail again.

West Cell Block

The West Cell Block is not as large as the East, but it still housed 700 inmates. It was the first set of cells built in 1886 with completion in 1896. The cells are larger here and considered luxury quarters that housed trusties. Trusties were inmates who had earned the confidence of the staff and held better jobs. No loud talking was permitted and the Inmates were given tin cups to be used for emergencies only. If an officer was needed, the inmate would ring the cup against the bars as many times as the range number he was located on. Scenes of the Russian prisoner were filmed here for “Air Force One.”

Solitary confinement cell

One section was used for solitary confinement when inmates did not cooperate with regular incarceration. They were placed in cells in either total darkness or total light for 24 hours a day. Originally there were no cots so the temperature was kept around 90 degrees as inmates slept on the floor and they didn’t want them getting sick. They were served bread, broth and water with a full meal on the third day. Scenes from the film ”Shawshank Redemption” when Andy was in the “hole’ were filmed in this part of the facility.

Shower facility – Once a week men hung up their towels on wall hooks and walked down in a line under the pipe for their shower.

The prison closed in 1990 by Federal court order due to overcrowding and inhumane conditions. A new prison facility was constructed close by and from the windows of the guard control center the new facility is visible.

It was a fascinating visit and I am glad I had the chance to explore.

Next time, something much less gritty……….

4 thoughts on “Exploring the Ohio State Reformatory”

  1. Wow very cool, I think I’ve seen that movie a dozen times, definitely looks exactly as I remember from the movie, would be fun to tour

    1. Hi Matt! I know you like that movie so I thought you would find this post interesting. It was great to see a place where so much of a film was made. I still need to see the movie again, it has been awhile!

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