Mansfield, Ohio: Mansfield Reformatory

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Since I happened to be back in Ohio visiting my family for my birthday last year, I thought it would be a perfect time to check out the Mansfield Reformatory, as it seemed like the kind of place I’d have some difficulty persuading them into visiting under normal circumstances.  I’d always been aware of Mansfield Reformatory, but had never actually gone there.  It’s most famous as the place where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed, but it’s another one of those old, creepy buildings with a dark past that’s meant to be haunted, and in case actual ghosts don’t materialise, they also run a haunted house during October.  We were going in August, so the prison was open for standard self-guided tours.  It was unseasonably cold and rainy on the day of our visit, which set the mood nicely.

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The building itself dates to the late 19th century, and is apparently a combination of Gothic, Romanesque, and Queen Anne styles (I’m going off the info on their website here, as I’m not an expert on architecture).  Suffice it to say, it looks every bit as eerie and ominous as you’d want a disused prison to look. Now, I’d never actually seen Shawshank at this point (I watched it after our visit, since I was keen to see how the prison looked on film), but it seemed like the Reformatory was mainly geared towards Shawshank fans, as many of the props used in the film were preserved inside, including the ones in Brooks’ room, and the warden’s office.  With that said, I still thought it was pretty neat, since it was essentially like creeping through an abandoned building.  Mansfield only ceased to be a functioning prison in 1990 (and Shawshank was filmed in 1994), but the level of decay indicates a lack of upkeep predating 1990.  There were a few volunteers hanging out, who were extremely knowledgeable, and quite keen to regale us with macabre tales of prison life; but most of the time, you’re left to your own devices, which only adds to the rather exhilarating feeling that you’re somehow trespassing.

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Mansfield Reformatory literally had hundreds of rooms, and you can poke around most of them, even the ones that have no lighting.  Being a jerk, I kept trying to hide in one of the darker rooms, and jump out on unsuspecting family members when they passed, but they were taking forever to get to the section I was in, so I gave up.  Regardless, there were still loads of weird surprises concealed within the labyrinth of rooms, including an old-fashioned wheelchair behind a locked door that looked like it could have been used by FDR (actually probably not, since I think he had special lightweight ones made for him, but you know what I mean), and a cracked mirror in one of the many crumbling bathrooms with “HELL” written on it. And that was just in the section of the prison used by the warden and guards.  Though we probably had already wandered around for a good hour and a half, the cell block was yet to come.

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I was told that Mansfield Reformatory has the world’s largest free-standing steel cell block, and though I don’t really have any other prisons to compare it to, I believe it.  The cell block was huge and a few stories high, though all the cells were pretty much identical, as you’d expect.  They did have a luxe cell down on one end equipped with a golden toilet; I’m not sure what the deal was with that one.  You could also visit the shower rooms and the library.  This section had quite a menacing air, so I didn’t linger too long.  Appropriately enough, it also appeared to be the section where they hold the haunted house, since they had a few leftover Halloween props, including a ghoul on a rail, hanging around in there, which, strangely, lightened the mood some, since they were pretty cheesy looking.  The last section of the prison was where they filmed some Soviet themed film (I can’t recall which one, but odds are good I’ve never seen it anyway, since I’m not that into movies, obviously),  so it was still decorated accordingly.  At the very end, there was a small gift shop and a little two room museum that had an electric chair, as well as a bit more information on the history of the prison, and some objects made by former prisoners during their incarceration, including amazingly nice looking furniture.

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Overall, I liked that the prison was left basically untouched.  Even though I’m usually partial to lots of captions, and background on the history of a building, I don’t think that would have worked with the mood they’ve created at Mansfield Reformatory.  I think it’s pretty rare these days to visit a tourist attraction and leave with the impression that you’ve just been somewhere the public isn’t supposed to have access to, and that’s how I felt after leaving the Reformatory.  If you’re a fan of Shawshank, then absolutely you should come visit it, but even if you’re not, it’s nonetheless pleasant spending an afternoon skulking around an old building.  And you can even get married there, if you’re so inclined!

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3.5 out of 5, probably a 4 for fans of The Shawshank Redemption

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