One hour into The Shawshank Redemption, and 30 years into his life sentence, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) says, “These prison walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
Shawshank Prison may not be real, but its walls are. They belong to the Ohio State Reformatory (OSR), located in Mansfield, Ohio. OSR opened in 1896 and housed more than 155,000 inmates during its nearly hundred years in operation. In 1993, just three years after it closed, the prison welcomed inmates once again—fictional residents that populate the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.
When it premiered on September 23, 1994, the movie was by all accounts a flop. The 142-minute drama cost $25 million to make; it barely made $1 million on its opening weekend and its total American box office gross was only $16 million. Yet, 25 years later—thanks to awards-season buzz, a popular VHS release, and endless showings on cable TV—it holds the number one spot on IMDB’s list of 250 top-rated movies.
Fans of the movie will recognize the warden’s office, the room where Red has his parole reviews, and even the apartment where Brooks (spoiler alert!) takes his own life. Additional scenes were filmed elsewhere in Ohio and around the country, but the prison is arguably just as memorable as its famous co-stars, which include Freeman and Tim Robbins.
Repent and reform
The OSR’s imposing brick-and-concrete building was designed by Cleveland architect Levi T. Scofield, who combined three architectural styles: Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Queen Anne. His hope was that the architecture of the complex would inspire inmates to turn away from their sinful lifestyles, embrace their spiritual lives, and repent—a sentiment echoed by Shawshank’s warden, who says in the movie, “I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both.”
On September 15, 1896, the OSR’s first 150 inmates arrived and were immediately put to work, building the prison’s sewer system and a 25-foot-wall that surrounded the complex. The wall and several other structures that once stood on the property have since been demolished, but the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society (MRPS) reopened the prison as a museum in 1995.
The MRPS is currently working to restore OSR, home to the largest free standing steel cell block in the world, to its original state, and proceeds from tours and events help fund grounds maintenance and structural improvements. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the movie’s release, OSR hosted a screening, a cast meet-and-greet, a cocktail party, a 7k race, bus tours, and self-guided Shawshank-centric tours. The prison is the epicenter of the Shawshank Trail, which includes all of the movie’s filming locations (there are 16, the most exotic of which is a beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which doubled as Zihuatanejo).
Over the years, the MRPS has replaced the prison’s roof, restored the warden’s quarters and the central guard room, and replaced the windows in the east cell block. They host murder mystery dinners and ghost hunts, and several rooms are available to be rent for conferences or corporate fundraisers (no wedding ceremonies, but wedding photography sessions can be arranged).
“Ghost Hunts,” offered on select Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year, include pizza, a tour of four of the prison’s hottest paranormal spots, and time for independent investigating. Visitors are free to leave when the tour concludes at 3 a.m.—and unlike the movie’s Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), they don’t have to tunnel through a wall and “crawl through 500 yards of s—” to do so.
Even casual fans of The Shawshank Redemption will recognize parts of the prison’s interior, aided by cardboard cutouts of memorable characters, props, and set pieces from the movie.
The photogenic prison has also been featured in other films—some of which were filmed when it was still in operation—including Tango and Cash, Air Force One, and Fallen Angels. Godsmack, Lil Wayne, and Marilyn Manson (who grew up an hour east in Canton, Ohio) have used OSR as a backdrop for their music videos or promotional photography, and the prison has been the site of several televised paranormal investigations.
In addition to its two massive cell blocks, OSR has an administration wing with offices and residences, a library, a shower room, a chapel, and several spooky corridors, all of which visitors are free to explore on their own. Historic buildings are often full of contradictions, and OSR is no different: Paint peels off decorative moldings, stained glass windows shine above rusty railings, and cramped cells sit beneath soaring ceilings.
Visitors shouldn’t let the sheen of the big screen distract from the fact that this was also once a place full of pain and sorrow. When the OSR was closed by a federal court order in 1990, it was because of a class action suit filed by the prisoners themselves, citing overcrowding and inhumane conditions. People may no longer be held involuntarily within its walls, but there are two modern-day correctional facilities located within a mile of OSR, and the debate surrounding the effectiveness—and necessity—of mass incarceration is far from over.
“The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it,” Red says in Shawshank. “They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing s— they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell, when those bars slam home, that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
If you go
The Ohio State Reformatory is open seven days a week April through October and Thursday through Sunday November through March from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and closed on most major holidays.