Mansfield, Ohio, is a prison town: There’s the Mansfield Correctional Institution, Richland Correctional Institution, and Ohio State Reformatory. The last one closed in 1990 (to make way for Mansfield Correctional), but it’s by far the most famous thanks to its connection to The Shawshank Redemption. This is where director Frank Darabont shot the 1994 film about a wrongly convicted man serving a life sentence.
They don’t make prisons like this anymore, and with good reason: Construction began in 1886 and didn’t finish until 1910. The prison opened in 1896, and prisoners did much of the construction themselves. During its operational history, the prison was completely self-sufficient: It had its own power plant and farm, and the prisoners made their own clothes and supplies.
It was a giant 15-acre complex, all of which remained when Darabont shot here in 1993. All of the external facilities, as well as the 25-foot wall surrounding the prison, would be torn down not long after filming. What remains of the reformatory now is the administration building and two cellblocks. The east one remains the world’s largest freestanding cellblock: It’s six tiers high and houses 600 cells.
Two years after the prison closed, it was taken over by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, which runs the 250,000-square-foot site today. It’s a massive place to maintain, and the areas that haven’t been restored are run down. Inside the cellblocks, the layers of paint peeling off the walls look like ivy, and just about everything invites a tetanus shot.
Back in 1993, the cellblock was in better shape, but still not great. Darabont wanted the cells to face each other in the film, so all of the cellblock scenes were shot on a set constructed in the shuddered Westinghouse Electric factory in Mansfield. The abandoned factory is still there, though the sets are long gone.
But most of the film was shot on the reformatory’s grounds. Throughout the facility are photos showing which scene was shot at that spot. There’s the parole board room, the warden’s office, the orientation room where the warden dresses down the new inmates, the cafeteria, solitary confinement, even the room that Brooks and Red rent after they’re released from prison. (The exteriors were shot elsewhere, but the room itself is in the prison administration building, complete with the “Brooks was here” graffiti.)
The strangest thing visitors will see—next to the ghosts that purportedly haunt the place—are the giant portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin that hang in the room that served as the Shawshank cafeteria. They’re leftover props from Air Force One, which shot at the reformatory four years after Shawshank. (A placard underneath the portraits notes that the Ohio State Reformatory and its preservation society do not endorse the views and actions of either man.)
The room where Warden Norton first addressed Andy Dufresne and the other inmates comically juxtaposes the prison’s cinematic history: It displays the tunnels from Shawshank (the one that led from Andy’s cell and the sewage tunnel he used to escape) and has a sign in Russian on the wall hailing the utopian Communist state. Sadly, there are no leftover props from the Lil Wayne video for “Go DJ,” which also shot here (along with Godsmack’s “Awake.”)
Shawshank employed a lot of locals as extras and created a lot of excitement around town, but it barely registered at the box office upon its release. Many people blamed the title, including Stephen King, whose “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption” provided the source material. “I never liked the title of my own story, and don’t to this day,” he later wrote. King, who famously despised the film adaptation of The Shining, loved The Shawshank Redemption, whose film rights he sold to Darabont for $1. He called Darabont “one of the universe’s better human beings.”
Shawshank’s seven Oscar nominations helped raise its profile—it won zero, thanks to Forrest Gump—but it wasn’t until its video release that it became a phenomenon. Its steady presence on cable TV keeps it in the pop-culture consciousness 17 years later.
As much as The Shawshank Redemption attracts tourists to the Ohio State Reformatory, a good chunk of its business comes from ghost hunters. Just about every ghost-related TV show has shot there, and the preservation society has regular ghost-hunting nights where it turns people loose inside prison from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. to see what they find. The A.V. Club didn’t like being down in the hole in the middle of the afternoon, much less the middle of the night, but that still sounds kind of fun. (All of this year’s hunts are sold out.) During Halloween, the place is turned into a haunted house. Though it’s not all scary times; the reformatory is also available for weddings and other parties in its nicely renovated Central Guard Room. (That’s the one with the Lenin and Stalin portraits.) Seriously.
That may sound strange, but the Ohio State Reformatory is a genuinely neat place. The building’s regal exterior is really stunning, and the inside is a fascinating mixture of well-done renovation and the eeriness of a ghost town. The A.V. Club spent a few hours wandering the place, and we kept finding cool rooms. Just bring some hand wipes and allergy medication. And if you need a tetanus shot, Mansfield Hospital is only 10 minutes away.