Redemption: The Ohio State Reformatory
by Shannon Lusk
Lusk,S. Redemption: The Ohio State Reformatory. The Paranormal Underground. 28 May 2013.
Sitting on the top of a crest, stoic and proud, constructed
of limestone and iron, the ramparts of the
Ohio State Reformatory (OSR) stand with conviction.
Originally built as a boy’s reformatory school and
opened in 1896, the Reformatory housed over 155,000
inmates within its walls until it closed in December 1990.
The hauntingly beautiful architecture and design was
crafted by Cleveland architect Levi Scofield. Both alluring
and mesmerizing, the Germanic-Romanesque style has
given the building its nickname of “Dracula’s Castle.”
Located in Mansfield, Ohio, the OSR houses the
largest cell blocks found within the penal system. Standing
six stories high, the East Cell block is the highest freestanding
cell block in existence. At one time some of the
cells within the building were only meant to house one
prisoner at a time. However, over the years and with the
influx of prisoners, they became over populated. These
once “cozy” entrapments became stuffy and crowded due
to doubling or tripling up on lodging.
Such close quarters often caused quarrels and acts of
violence resulting in injuries and even fatalities.
A Tough Life at the Reformatory
Life for the prisoners was anything but ideal. Just
as animals in the wild had to learn to adapt and survive
in their surroundings, so did the occupants of the OSR.
Shanks, shivs, dice, and other contraband were found
within the crevices of the prisoner’s cells. The inmates of
the Reformatory were talented craftsman, making items
such as tattoo guns out of a toothbrush, clock motor, ball
point pen, bell wire, and duct tape.
Because the luxuries of the outside world were denied
to them, they invented ways to indulge in comforts
one would find within their own kitchen. Created by attaching
two spoons together with bell wire and cardboard
as insulation, inmates could use this “water warming”
device to make many delightful cups of coffee.
Prisoners were not the only inhabitants of the OSR
that had to learn to adapt to an unusual living situation.
Many of the wardens, assistant wardens, guards, and staff
also lived on the premises while it was a working prison.
The front part of the facility on both of the east and
west sides were considered “home sweet home.” Living
quarters, fit for a king, were fashioned for the warden and
his family on the east side of the Administration quarters.
With a flavor of Victorian style accenting the beautifully
constructed wood work, these quarters housed many
memories, especially for the children that grew up within
Eventually, after the prison was deemed unsatisfactory,
it closed, and the State of Ohio decided it was going
to tear down the iconic dwelling that once housed notorious
criminals. However, before they could, the macabre
demeanor of the building caught the eye of Hollywood
Producers and in 1993, the infamous film, The Shawshank
Redemption, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan
Freeman, was filmed on site.
Over a span of about 20 years, the Reformatory has
been cleaned, preserved, and restored by the MRPS, volunteers,
and staff of the OSR. Because people love and value
the history of this institution so much, they work all year
round to help improve the conditions of the building so
that the public is able to tour this magnificent building
and understand what it was like to live and work within
Paranormal Investigators Flock to the OSR
The folklore of the building is nothing short of diabolical.
There are many inmates that still walk the halls of
the OSR in search of something most have not yet figured
out. Reports of shadow men darting in and out of the cells
and the disembodied voices creeping from empty rooms
keep visitors coming back year after year to participate in
the OSR Ghost Hunts.
Doors slamming, visitors being pushed and scratched,
and equipment failure are some of the many experiences
ghost hunters find when traipsing around the dark building
during the twilight hours. The allure of such activity
has sparked the interest of many paranormal shows that
highlight facilities such as the OSR.
The OSR has been featured on My Ghost Story,
Paranormal Challenge, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters
Academy, Ghost Hunters, and Scariest Places on Earth.
Although there is a lot of activity that happens in the darkness,
most of the volunteers report that paranormal activity
is at its highest sometimes during the day. It is always
beneficial to take a tour of the building before engaging in a
Events and Programs
The building’s tour season begins promptly in April and
offers self-guided tours Monday-Sunday and guided
tours on Saturdays and Sundays. There are many programs held on site
throughout the year that offer a world of entertainment
for the public and also for those who want to rent out the
facility for their own private use.
The Ohio State Reformatory offers their Central
Guard Room for weddings, conventions, meetings, and
dances, etc. The building also offers programs such as
ghost hunts, ghost walks, archival programs, and historical
outreach. The facility has also been the canvas for many films,
video, and photo shoots.
contributed by Shannon Lusk, Ohio State Reformatory (former) Curator