My family recently visited the Historic Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. Our tour was excellent and we left wondering why on earth it had taken us so long to visit!
Operated by the Mansfield Reformatory Prison Society, the Ohio State Reformatory is the largest castle-like structure in Ohio and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as one of the “101 Places to See Before you Die” by the Travel Channel.
It’s hard to believe that the state once considered demolishing this amazing hometown treasure before selling it to the preservation society at auction for $1. No, that is not a typo. It sold for a buck. Our tour guide told us that you could find that dollar bill framed, and hanging in the gift shop onsite, but I didn’t get a chance to see it.
Self-guided tours are available Monday through Saturday and guided tours on Sunday. Tour options are the West Tower Tour tour where you climb a spiral staircase to the Guard Tower where you can view the cemetery where the inmates were buried. The tour also gives you a glimpse of the underground tunnel system.
The East Cell Block tour, (the one we choose) offers a great overview of the prison and allows you to walk along the world’s largest free standing steel cell block. If you choose this tour, you’ll also get a glimpse of the living quarters where the chaplain, guards and even the superintendent lived with his family.
The Hollywood Tour may be the most popular allowing you to see where scenes from two well-known movies, The Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One were filmed.
We weren’t sure how busy it would be so we arrived early and after purchasing tickets, we had time to spare. We decided to go through the on-site museum and gift shop while we waited for our tour to begin. The museum isn’t very large. Depending on your level of interest, you could spend anywhere from five to 30 minutes to go through it.
While viewing the exhibits, you’ll learn about the history of the grounds which served as a Civil War Training ground prior to becoming a prison site. The museum also houses a replica of “Old Sparky”, the electric chair, a collection of weapons that were made behind bars, and a collection of furniture that was made on the grounds at one of the prison factories.
We met our guide, Marty on the West Porch and entered into a large hallway. We were introduced not only to the history of the prison, but also learned a bit of local history as well.
The imposing architecture was designed by Levi Scofield, who’s also credited for designing the Scofield building and the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Downtown Cleveland.
Construction of the Ohio State Reformatory began in 1886 but due to a lack of funds, it was nearly 10 years before it was completed and the first prisoners arrived with great fanfare in 1896, bringing desperately needed jobs to the area.
The Ohio State Reformatory was an intermediate penitentiary which housed first- time, non-violent offenders, many between the ages of 16 to 24. The prison was self-sufficient and each inmate was assigned a job upon entering the gates. Since many had not attended school, their first job was often to get an education.
At one time the prison grounds boasted a cannery, mattress factory, furniture and woodworking shop, with each position filled by those incarcerated. Livestock were raised and gardens tended which supplied the food needed to serve over 2,000 prisoners.
The last inmate left the prison in December 1990. After that the prison was left empty, uncared for and unheated, resulting in quite a bit of damage to the interior. Though the inside of the prison may be in poor condition, and the painted walls are heavily peeling, the elaborate molding and woodwork that was crafted by the inmates remains.
Our tour, took us along corridors and up many flights of stairs through the Chaplin’s quarters, through the gate room, the library that was once used as a hospital, the Chapel, and along what was perhaps the highlight of our tour, the East Cell Block.
Our visit to the Ohio State Reformatory was wonderful. Our tour guide was both knowledgeable and personable and held our interest throughout the entire tour. This was an outing that appealed to our entire family.
Tips for visiting the Ohio State Reformatory
1. The prison tours are not recommended for children under the age of 7 due to the presence of lead paint that is visibly peeling everywhere and because of the physical nature of the tour. Personally, I’d recommend that you not take children under the age of 10 unless they have a great attention span, and an interest in architecture, history or prisons.
2. The majority of the prison is not heated or air conditioned and could be either hot or cold. Dress accordingly.
3. The tour does include a fair bit of walking and quite a few stairs. If mobility is an issue, you may opt not to take a tour, but the outside of the prison is still pretty cool to look at.
4. Self-guided tours are available Monday through Saturday and audio tours can be rented, but I highly recommend that you visit on Sunday for a guided tour.
5. Plan to spend 2 to 3 hours for your tour and to see the prison museum and browse the gift shop.
6. Restroom facilities are not available during the tour, bathrooms are not even located inside the building (they are in the parking lot near the building). Plan to “go” before the tour begins.
7. This may be a no brainer, but if you’re planning to go on a Hollywood Tour, make sure you watch either The Shawshank Redemption, Air Force One, or both, before your visit.
8. If you are a fan of The Shawshank Redemption, stick around Mansfield and travel along The Shawshank Trail. Free brochures detailing the self-guided tour are available in the gift shop.
9. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Your feet will thank you.
The prison is the home of the Haunted Prison in October and is frequently visited by paranormal groups. Depending on your tour guide, you may hear some talk of hauntings and ghosts. Our tour guide only mentioned the mysterious X, which is actually achieved as a result of the architecture.
Website: The Ohio State Reformatory- www.mrps.org
Address: 100 Reformatory Road, Mansfield, Ohio 44905
Phone: (419) 522-2644
Hours vary by season- view the website or call for current times
Cost: Please visit the website for current tour pricing.
View my list of family staycation ideas in Mansfield, Ohio for other area attractions that I recommend.
Have you visited the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield? Which tour did you go on and what did you think?
Love the Shawshank Redemption? Never seen it? Watch it before you visit. Get your copy here (affiliate link):