The Traveling Teacher

Courtesy photo

It’s all peeling paint and dark corners at the Ohio Stateʒeformatory Historic Site ʩn Mansfield, where the movie "The Shawshank Redemption" was filmed.

I love to visit places that are unique and not necessarily on everyone’s “must-see” list. That’s exactly what my girls and I found when we visited the Ohio State Reformatory Historic Site in Mansfield. Ever since we visited Alcatraz in California, we’ve had a fascination with old prisons, so this trip was right up our alley.

The easy interstate drive to Mansfield took us just over two hours. The Reformatory sits very close to the road, and as soon as we turned from the main drag, we could see it. “Oh wow! Look at that! It’s like a castle,” were just a few of the comments that drifted from the back seat. The Reformatory is one of the most castle-like structures in Ohio, and it is indeed an impressive structure.

Our self-guided tour of the Reformatory began in the front section of the building that used to house the prison offices as well as the warden’s living quarters. The rooms are now empty except for the occasional chair or random fixture that’s been left behind. It’s all peeling paint and dark corners for the most part. Still, it was easy enough for us to imagine what life could’ve been like during the prison’s glory days. The audio wand that we rented helped us understand how these rooms would’ve been used by the warden and his family.

From the living quarters and offices, we made our way into the main prison building, which consists of two cell blocks, east and west. The east cell block, where we spent the most time exploring, stands silent and empty with just its steel cellblock as a reminder of the past. This cellblock is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest freestanding steel cellblock in the world. It is not supported by any of the outside prison walls. It’s 6 tiers high, and at one point in time it held 2,000 prisoners. As we strolled the area, we saw remnants of beds and washbasins, toilets and bookshelves. It was hard to imagine how two grown men would have shared such a small space.

The west cell block is the older part of the prison, and its cells were constructed from concrete cinder block. These cells are bigger than the ones in the east side of the prison, and prisoners felt lucky if they got transferred to a cell in the west. From this part of the prison we also saw the solitary confinement cells which were windowless and lonely. At that exact moment, we happened to be the lone tourists exploring that part of the prison, and it was creepy enough to send us scurrying back to the main area.

The Reformatory claims paranormal activity is a regular occurrence, and many of the audio wand recordings shared the various supernatural happenings. Visitors interested in that side of the Reformatory can sign up for the regular ghost walks and ghost hunts that are offered.

A small museum at the front of the Reformatory also features artifacts from the prison days past. A museum highlight is “Old Sparky,” the original electric chair on permanent loan from the Columbus Penitentiary. Scratches and the impression of a handprint adorn that chair, and it’s a bit unnerving to see it in person.

Surprisingly, the facility is air conditioned, but beyond that, it feels like people walked away from the site once it closed in 1990 and never returned. Visitors are warned that they will encounter stairs, uneven walkways, and lead-based paint. This is an old building, not a modern structure with all the latest conveniences. Note that the Reformatory is not handicapped accessible, nor is it recommended for pregnant women or children under 7.

It takes around two hours to explore the Reformatory. The aforementioned audio wands are available for an extra $5 each, and I recommend them as the informational signage throughout the prison is minimal. Most tours are self-guided except for the guided tours that are available on Sundays. Special events are also scheduled throughout the season which require specific tickets purchased in advance.

Those who’ve seen the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” will find special significance here since the majority of the movie was filmed at the Reformatory and around the town of Mansfield. In fact, there’s a “Shawshank Trail” that visitors can follow to see many of the movie filming sites, both at the Reformatory and around town.

It’s worth the drive to Mansfield to see this unique prison and little slice of Ohio’s history. Plan your visit today at See more photos of the Reformatory at