MANSFIELD, Ohio — They take their “get out of jail free” cards seriously here.
When the historic Ohio State Reformatory closed here in 1990 after 94 years in operation, officials wanted to tear it down. Those vast expanses of green lawn were destined to become parking lots for the two new, modern prison facilities nearby.
But razing the massive stone structure — the back walls alone were 25 feet tall, 6 feet thick at the base and up to 250 yards long — was a task akin to bringing down Tyrannosaurus Rex with a peashooter.
“You can imagine how much dynamite would be needed,” said Ron Puff, a local Baptist minister who appears to know every stone and windowpane, every inch of the rust and peeling paint covering the massive cell blocks.
Instead, the former reformatory for delinquent young men that later became a maximum security prison got a reprieve. Through some savvy marketing by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, it drew 80,000 visitors last year for extreme ghost hunts, a huge Halloween festival and murder mystery dinners. But they also make the visit to see the site of the 1993 filming for what’s considered by some as one of the greatest movies of all time — “The Shawshank Redemption.” These visits brought in $10 million in tourism to the Mansfield area last year.
The society next weekend will mark the movie’s 20th anniversary with the kickoff of a 13-stop bus tour of filming sites, re-creations, appearances by some cast members and locals who were extras, as well as a 1940s-themed cocktail party in the nicely renovated guard room at the reformatory.
Slowly, thanks to the efforts of the society, parts of the buildings are scheduled to be heated for the first time in decades, rooms cleaned and decorated. Huge cathedral windows providing the only natural light along the multitiered cell blocks are being replaced. Stained glass window panels damaged by the elements or vandalism have been removed for repair.
It will be a long, long time before work is finished — if ever, given the size of the ongoing process. But like the protagonist of the “The Shawshank Redemption,” those involved find hope, with an eye toward the big picture.
“It’s a 100-year project,” said Paul Smith, director of the reformatory and owner of local wine bar, The Hungry Grape. As such, he reports to the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. “We set everything up to create a foundation for years to come.”
The society purchased the site for $1 in 1994, with the understanding it would revert to the state if progress were not made. All funds raised, except for staff salaries, go back into restoration.
Within the next six months, the society hopes it can keep the reformatory open to tourism year-round. But first it has to make the entire facility weather tight.
As head tour guide and chief of maintenance, Pastor Puff is always busy, organizing volunteers to clean, paint and repair.
Unlike “Shawshank” protagonist Andy Dufresne, who hounded the state legislature for years until it finally came through with funding for a prison library, the society is pretty much going it alone, although it receives the occasional grant. The $2 million raised over the past two years went into repairing the reformatory roof.
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The design of the Ohio State Reformatory by Cleveland architect Levi T. Scofield was said to have been influenced by the 16th-century French Chateau de Chambord, giving the massive stone structure the elegance of rooftop spires and high, arching windows.
Construction began in 1886 in the hope that young men ages 14-28 — first-time, nonviolent offenders — could be reformed by three things: education, work and religion.
“With those three things in place, they had a [recidivism] rate of only 10 to 15 percent,” Pastor Puff said.
The laws would change, meaning young men could no longer be forced to attend classes or chapel. In the 1930s, a fire at the state penitentiary destroyed one of the cell blocks, and about 300 “really rough people” were transferred to Mansfield. By 1970, it was, for all intents and purposes, a maximum security prison.
Conditions deemed unfit for human residence and impending lawsuits contributed to its closing. The cells were tiny — many were 7 feet by 9 feet and held two inmates. It was built, after all, to hold younger, smaller teens and men, and the average American male stood 5 feet 9 in the late 19th century.
There are several wings of cell blocks. The East housed up to 1,200 inmates in six tiers, 100 cells to a tier, stacked to the vast ceiling. The West, slightly smaller, held 700 inmates. Unlike the East, where fence-like lattices ran the entire way from top to bottom, this stack had no such protective railing and inmates fighting could fall — or be thrown — over the sides of the walkways.
It explains why, when earlier asked if executions were carried out there, Pastor Puff replied, “No, no legal ones.”
“The Hilton” was a nickname for a part of the West. Here, the cells were a bit larger and, resembling less a cage and more of a Wild West sheriff’s stronghold, there was more concrete on the outside wall to afford the inmates relative privacy.
Amid the dark gray paint chipping off the metal remains an anomaly: a cell bearing gold trim. Rapper Lil Wayne shot a music video for “Go DJ” at the reformatory in 2004, featuring the cell block, the guard tower and turning the former chapel into a mess hall.
“The Shawshank Redemption” wasn’t the only movie shot there. While it was still a working prison, parts of 1989’s “Tango and Cash” and 1976’s “Harry and Walter Go to New York” were filmed there. Other shoots include 1997’s “Air Force One,” horror and fantasy features such as 2014’s “The Wind is Watching” and 2006’s “Fallen Angels,” a Godsmack video and TV shows such as Syfy’s “Ghost Hunters” and Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures.”
Is the place haunted?
“How do you prove something like that?” said Pastor Puff. “I’m a pastor, full time, and my beliefs come from the Scriptures. So I have a different view of what’s going on than most of your ghost hunters.”
Spirits or no spirits, the Ohio State Reformatory is a great place for overnight ghost hunting. Its website notes among the restrictions: no drug use, alcohol, smoking, sex or holding seances during the overnight sessions. Hunters bring flashlights and are left on their own to explore. It’s a daunting thought.
“I did this once, and I just sat and [listened to] other people walk through,” said Jodie Snavely, a tour director. “You hear things. I mean, it’s an old building, but... you hear things.”
The society conducts a variety of tours listed at www.mrps.org, from guided events, wedding receptions, murder mystery dinners and overnight, do-it-yourself ghost hunts to its annual monthlong Halloween blowout event in conjunction with Haunted X (www.hauntedx.com).
In fact, the “Haunted Prison Experience” is such a big deal, the former reformatory closes for three weeks to prepare, beginning Labor Day. It reopens Sept. 26 and runs through Nov. 2. Because actors are part of the roughly 45-minute program and it promises some real jolts of fright, no one under 13 is admitted.
The Haunted X events run Thursday through Sunday nights.
The reformatory is the jewel in what’s known as the Shawshank Trail tour, which is self-guided. A half-dozen local sites near Mansfield include the “haunted” Bissman building downtown (exterior of the halfway house where Brooks and Red lived upon release), the bench where Brooks fed the birds, nearby Malabar Farm State Park (Pugh cabin, where Andy followed his wife and her lover) and across from the park, the oak tree near the old stone wall.
The wall was built for the film and has been carted off by souvenir hunters. The tree was hit by high winds in 2011, but the part that came down now rests alongside a pond on the reformatory grounds.
By car, visitors can drive about 40 miles west, to Upper Sandusky, where the wood shop and the Wynadot County courthouse were other much-filmed sites. There, funds raised through special events are helping to renovate the courthouse roof.
Bill and April Mullen, as well as Bob Wachtman, put together a 20-year filming reunion in Upper Sandusky last summer. They have begun talks to coordinate more events with their counterparts in Mansfield. A small but very cool museum exists at the wood shop.
There is also Ashland, Ashland County, about 15 miles northeast of Mansfield. Castle Rock shot “bank” and “bus station” scenes there.
But start at the reformatory. Visitors are warned from the start that they can enter the cells, even sit in the dark, damp confines of solitary. Just. Don’t. Shut. The. Door.
“To be honest, we don’t have keys for some of these,” Pastor Puff said, noting that locksmiths have to be called. “We have ’get out of jail free’ cards that we hand out, but they know if they get stuck and we have to call someone in here to free them, they’re paying for it.
“And if it’s on a weekend, they might be there until the next day.“
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.