Mansfield Reformatory of Central Ohio

(Originally published July 6, 2014)

I got pulled over yesterday afternoon. And then I went to prison. No, the consequence for speeding isn’t THAT harsh; in fact, the whole reason I was driving in the first place was so I could go to prison. I guess I should explain…

Whenever I have an uninterrupted weekend off from my “real” job, I try to travel somewhere. Because of the holiday, I had a full 72 hours off, but in the midst of planning for some big upcoming trips and recovering from the adventures of the previous week, planning a Fourth of July trip wasn’t exactly on my mind. So there I was, on the birthday weekend of our nation, with nothing to do. After a bit of research, I decided to celebrate my freedom… by going to prison.

Mansfield, Ohio, isn’t too far away from my current home, but even though I’ve lived in the state for over 10 months now, this was one city I still hadn’t visited. It seems like there is lots to do here. There’s a Bible-themed wax museum, a carrousel park, and several beautiful natural parks and museums. But since this was only a spontaneous afternoon trip, I decided to choose one thing to be my main event in Mansfield. So of course, I had to choose the most unique thing I could find… the Mansfield Reformatory.

Since I was visiting a city that’s over 100 times bigger than the population of my current village, I decided to use this opportunity to run a few errands. (And yes, I got pulled over on my way there, and no, I don’t want to talk about it!) I found out where the bus station is, got gas that’s over twenty cents cheaper than anywhere else nearby, and scoured the clearance section of the Mansfield Kroger, which is what I always do whenever I’m near a new Kroger. Then I went to the Reformatory, which on the outside looks like a castle. The inside, however, looks much more grim.

The first part of the self-guided tour was of some offices and the warden’s living quarters. Because it hasn’t been used for years, It is very run-down. The negative thing about that is that there is chipping lead paint EVERYWHERE, making this tour unsafe for little kids and making me feel gross by the time I finished the tour. On the positive side, it did contribute to the historic charm, and for some, it allowed for ghost stories. Yes, they have lots of ghosts sightings and ghost hunts here, and there is even a “Ghost Hunt Manager” on staff! But of course I was much more interested in other aspects, such as the architecture. There were video kiosks situated around the Reformatory, and one mentioned how the staircases were stainless steel in order to be fireproof, but in order to look nice they were painted to look like wood. The videos also showed some scenes for Shawshank Redemption. That was one of the movies that was filmed largely in this building, along with Air Force One. In Air Force One, some of the extras were actual prisoners! I enjoyed going around the warden’s quarters to find scenes from Shawshank Redemption, which in the film was used as offices and conference rooms. Although I haven’t seen the movie before, this is the second place I’ve visited that was part of the set, so I kind of want to see it just so I can say “yeah, I’ve been there”. Here’s me recreating one scene from the movie:

After going through the offices and living quarters, which in itself took quite awhile, the tour led to rooms that the inmates were more likely to see. One of my favorite rooms was the chapel. It had some of the art preserved from when it was in operation, and although it looked fairly ugly now, you can tell that in its day it must have been one of the most beautiful rooms in the prison!

On the stage of the chapel, there was a window with the sign “photography through this window is strictly forbidden!” While I followed the rules, I was of course curious of what there was that I couldn’t photograph. You see, while the reformatory no longer holds prisoners, the newer correction facility right behind it certainly does. I spent quite some time just seeing what was going on, you could see hundreds of people in their uniforms spending time outside. I’m not sure why it was so intriguing, but it was the first time I really got a glimpse of a prison!

After peeking at the modern-day prison, I was soon led to an in-depth look at the old one. The Mansfield Reformatory has two cell blocks. The east one, also known as the world’s largest free-standing steel cell block, is six stories high with one hundred cells on each story- that held a total of 1200 inmates! The tour starts you out on the very top, and even though there was a fence to keep people from falling off (and perhaps preventing suicides back in the day), I was nervous the entire time! I was still frightened even as I went down the next couple of floors, but my longing to explore the cells helped me overcome it. Although all the cells look pretty much the same (except for the operator cells, where an employee would do things like open the cell doors), many of the cells are open to go inside, so of course I had to take some pictures of myself playing inmate!

Seeing the conditions that the inmates lived in was very sobering. I thought my bedroom was small, but the cells were half the size, with a toilet and sink, and shared with someone else! And there were thousands of people who lived here, and, according to one of the kiosk videos, some died here. They did have a library, which was way too small for the 1900 people staying there at any given time, plus it was used as a hospital when necessary. They could shower twice a week, but the public showers looked more like a sprayer you’d find in a barn. The original kitchen and dining area were oh so tiny, no way to make homemade food and certainly no time to taste it! After this I visited the smaller west cell block (only holding 700) and finally the solitary confinement, but that was certainly too saddening to take any pictures.

At the beginning and end of the tour, there were museum-type rooms that contained not only artifacts from the movies on the location, but from several apsects of the Reformatory. There were theatrical posters, cast scripts, a replica electric chair, and creative inventions made by the inmates using their limited resources. After nearly three hours, I knew that there was still so much to explore, but I was getting tired and the building would soon close. (Being trapped alone at night in this building is NOT on my to-do list!) Besides the standard gift shop, the tour ended with hand sanitizer (thank goodness!) and brochures for nearby attractions. I got some information for places that sounded interesting, and even found a coupon for a bulk food store I had heard of earlier. So I decided I would go to Pumpkin Seed, and I’m glad I did. They had all kinds of healthy food, and although some were pricier than what I’ve seen elsewhere, there were some very good deals. I bought discount peanuts and freshly-ground peanut butter, and then headed over to the Gorman Nature Center, where I enjoyed a bike ride/hike and contemplated whether or not I wanted to go the fireworks display that was in a state park fifteen miles away. When I realized that the reformatory itself made for a full day, I decided to head home, going exactly the speed limit the entire way. Besides, next week I’m going to a place where there will also be fireworks…and I’m sure the display will be much, much better. Stay tuned!