Locked Up & Lovin’ It!
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!
They drove along Reformatory Drive, their attention captured by the stone monster flickering through the fence.
One car was smothered amid a hundred bikers, all donning their leather cuts and club patch. The mass of vehicles slowly constricted to turn and enter a time capsule behind the main gate. Ahead was an avenue of buckeye trees emphasizing – “arrival.” It led smack into the prison, looming as an imposing castle.
“How would you like to live across the street from a prison?” A man asked a boy as they walked, gesturing at the houses across the way.
“Living across from a castle would be awesome!” The boy exclaimed, ignoring the leading question.
Everyone stood in awe of The Ohio State Reformatory. No wonder epic films like Shawshank Redemption were shot at this architectural gem in Mansfield, Ohio. With well over 100 years of hellish stories in its vault, it is ironic that this place was originally meant to inspire. Yet, just as easily, its mixture of architectural styles featuring Chateauesque and Richardsonian with Gothic overtones could also intimidate.
Before morphing into a maximum security prison, it was meant to reform young males, 16-21 years-old. Levi Tucker Scholfield, architect, designed it with the intent to trigger a spiritual rebirth in its wayward inmates. It opened in 1886 while it was still under construction, which had started about ten years earlier. The grounds were previously used for Union soldier training during the Civil War. Inmates helped build the East Cell Block, which then began housing some of those very laborers in 1910. This cell block is proclaimed to be the world’s largest, free-standing, steel cell block, according to the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. It stands six-tiers high holding 600 cells that once had 1,200 inmates. The West Cell Block has five tiers and 350 cells which sometimes held as many as four men each.
The prison’s artful deterioration is one of its strongest focal points. The way its lead-based paint has cracked and curled created a bizarre beauty out of decay. What is now interestingly photogenic was an eyesore and health risk to the last prisoners who lived there before it was finally closed in 1990. By then, some 155,000 boys and men had spent time locked up there.
“If you think the conditions look inhumane today, it was much more brutal for those who had to live there during its last decade of operation,” said Cheryl Knerman, Ohio State Reformatory historian and volunteer. Most just call her, “Ma,” she’s been there so long.
Inmates filed a lawsuit in 1978 citing the unlivable conditions. The suit was settled in 1983 due to constitutional rights being violated. Some improvements were made before the last prisoner was relocated and the place finally closed, slated for demolition.
“There were rats and cockroaches! Men wore hairnets just so the roaches didn’t crawl into their ears while they slept,” Knerman said.
When you enter prison, you don’t just lose dignity, you lose your personal identity. You are assigned a number and that number is your new name. That number will remain in your head for the rest of your life.
“I was in there from 1987 until right before it shut down. What I remember most was how LOUD it was in there 24-hours a day. Nineteen-years-old and young and cocky. After Mansfield, I decided that crime most definitely did not pay. That place was hell,” said prison number R 143-483.
“It is haunted. Was hell. Never fit for an animal,” said prison number R 147-169.
“It was pure hell. You felt dead while there!” said UMBER 99028.
More than 200 prisoners never left. And all there is to remember them is their prison number on a marker in the prison cemetery. These men weren’t even buried with their birth name. Causes of death included falls, slit throats, drinking toxic fluids, stabbings by scissors and screwdrivers, setting one’s self on fire, being set on fire by another prisoner using flammable fluids, suicide by hanging and natural causes.
Another thing prisoners left behind to be remembered is graffiti. Prisoner words and drawings are found inside cells and especially the attic of the West Cell Block near the chapel.
In the early days, three goals were set to rehabilitate each young man entering the reformatory: Gain an education, learn a trade skill and find religion. But that vision eroded along with the walls. As the 20th Century progressed, ideals for reforming inmates regressed and hardened criminals began filling the cell bunks. These cells were originally meant for sleeping and not much else. The prisoners spent much of their time outside of their cells, working. The grounds had a clothing factory and furniture factory. Its butcher shop slaughtered cattle, chickens and pigs from the prison barns. There was even a printing shop and prison newspaper – The New Day – written by inmates and edited by the Chaplain. The place was self-sustaining. But this was life for the lesser offenders. In the later years, when it became a maximum security prison, inmates spent most of their time in cells so small they only fit a bunk with standing room on one side and a sink and toilet wedged behind it.
In summer, the heat was unbearable. You can easily imagine the misery by walking through the East Cell Block. On one side, bodies were stacked in very tight quarters and on the other side, large old metal fans roosted in the rotting walls. No doubt, it was sweltering at times. And in winter, it was freezing.
So tensions could flair. And when they did, hotheads were sent to The Hole!
The Hole is solitary confinement which is located off The Bullpen. The original isolation area was in the sub-basement, thus, The Hole. A typical stay in solitary confinement was three days with no lights and a temperature kept at 95 degrees.
Saul Harris and Scott Thompson were sent to The Hole on December 27, 1988 – together in one cell! Only Thompson came out alive. He strangled Harris.
Two inmates broke out of isolation in 1932. Inmate Merrill Chandler fatally hit a guard, Frank Hanger, in the head with a pipe. Inmate Chester Probaski was with him. The following year, both were executed by electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, and both on the same day. Today, the actual electric chair, nicknamed Old Sparky, is on display at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. It claimed 315 lives from 1897 – 1963.
The most horrific killings happened there in 1948. The murder spree duo of Robert Daniels (convicted of robbery) and John West (convicted of auto theft) was dubbed, The Mad Dog Killers.
They despised a guard named “Red” Harris. They swore that once they were freed, they’d return to kill him. When the time came, they first went on a robbery spree and murdered a tavern owner. They needed Harris’s address so they went to the prison farm superintendent, John Neible. Frustrated that the address wasn’t forthcoming, the two ex-cons killed Neible, his daughter and wife and left. The killing field grew. A farmer was killed for his car. A statewide manhunt was issued so they had to switch vehicles. They then killed a trucker for his truck.
The story went national. At a state line roadblock, a shootout ensued. The 22-year-old West got out of the vehicle and was shot to death. The 24-year-old Daniels was captured and executed in Old Sparky on January 3, 1949.
There’s a book about this story of blood lust by Scott Fields, titled, The Mansfield Killings.
There was also a warden – called Superintendent – and his wife, whose lives were claimed at the prison, which doubled as their home. The front portion of the prison was lavish. Today, as you sift from one room of ruin to the next, you gain a sense of the expense that went into housing the superintendent and his family. Of course, like the rest of the prison, it takes imagination to see what was once there through the layers of peeling wallpaper, broken tile and ceilings that look as though they’re suffering from Leprosy.
The superintendent’s family occupied the three floors of the East administrative area. Others, including the chaplain, assistant superintendents and some guards occupied the second and third floors of the West administrative area. In November 1950, the superintendent’s wife, Helen Glattke, reached for a jewelry box in her closet, knocking a loaded pistol to the floor. She was shot in the chest and screamed for her two young boys to get their dad. She died a few days later. Roughly nine years later, her husband, Arthur Glattke, fell dead of a heart attack in his superintendent’s office.
There are so many brutal and mysterious deaths that happened in this castle-like prison spanning well over a century, many are convinced it’s haunted.
Paranormal occurrences are frequently reported. They happen inside and outside of the prison. It could be during a day tour with up to 20 witnesses or at night. Throughout the year, the prison is opened overnight from the sub-basement to the attic for ghost hunters to roam at will. Anyone from zero to serious ghost hunting experience is permitted but these opportunities are filled almost as fast as they are announced. Many bring special equipment to try and catch a sign of the supernatural.
In a windowless room on the third floor’s middle corridor, there’s a bowed back wall. The room is completely empty except for one old wooden chair. If you close the door and turn off your flashlight, it’ll be the blackest black your eyes ever saw. Remain still and silent. Something very weird may happen as has been reported, often. When you turn your flashlight back on, the chair will be in a different location.
Other freaky experiences commonly reported to staff are the feeling of your hair being tugged, abruptly, or a finger running across your back, even a fingernail scratching into your skin. It’s events like these that have some rush for the doors never to return.
“Overnighters are urged not to provoke the dead,” said Kneram. “Keep in mind, you’re in a prison.”
The prison at night is a completely different experience. You definitely need a flashlight to navigate the vast building. Volunteers and a security detail patrol throughout the castle and decrepit cell blocks to ensure respect is given to the building and other people.
Kneram shared haunting stories she experienced firsthand or with associates. She said that once, she was with Scott Sukel, Ghost Hunt Manager, in Isolation. At the end of the corridor, she was poked so hard in her ribs that she gasped. Later, she overheard another associate tell a mutual colleague that she was poked in the shoulder while walking through the Isolation corridor. They wondered about guards that used to walk the range jabbing inmates in the ribs to hurry them along.
Another incident Kneram recalled was when she was with a lady named Jill Keppler. They brought a tape recorder to an Isolation cell where guests were complaining about being scratched. They asked, “Who is scratching.” When they played it back, they were stunned by a loud male voice responding sharply and clearly, “Leave it alone!” This is known as an electronic voice phenomenon or EVP. It’s when an unknown voice reveals itself when a video or voice recording device is played back.
Unexplained phenomenon are reported all the time. Doors are heard slamming nearby where there are no signs of life. Footsteps are heard in hallways or on staircases. Audible voices are heard. Apparitions are seen. Even odd smells of tobacco or floral scents are sensed when there is nothing of the like anywhere to be found. These accounts and many more appear in a book by Sherri Brake titled, Haunted History of the Ohio State Reformatory.
Perhaps the greatest story ever told within the walls of the historic reformatory is a fictional tale and major motion picture – The Shawshank Redemption.
The prison was to be demolished after the Shawshank filming in the early 1990s so much of the movie props were left behind.
A painting of Jesus is found in the West Cell Block. In the movie, this served as the video room for Shawshank inmates to see movies. It used to be a chapel. Long ago, it even served as a mattress factory where inmates worked. The painting is a leftover prop and now the room is referred to as The Jesus Room.
On the prison’s third floor, near the base of the chapel steps, is a beam across the ceiling in an adjacent room. Carved into it are the words, “Brooks was here” and next to it – “So was Red.” This is a replica of the set where Brooks hung himself at the halfway house and Red, later, considered doing the same.
One of the most magical moments in the history of cinema was the tunnel escape Andy Dufresne, Shawshank’s protagonist, used after digging straight through his cell wall over the years. He used pinup girl posters to hide the hole. This tunnel is now displayed in the actual prison’s Bullpen area and is just a little longer than a banquet table. Believe it or not, syrup and sawdust were used to mimic sewage in the pipe for filming the escape scene.
The Shawshank Trail is a do-it-yourself driving tour that hits over a dozen filming sites for the movie. These feature the Shawshank warden’s office located in the West administration area of the real prison. In it, visitors will see the wall safe from the movie. Other sites include the bank Andy visited after escaping prison, Red’s bus station, the rock wall and oak tree where Red found what Andy left him, the old hotel where Brooks hung himself, and the courthouse where Andy stood trial. You can even visit the theatre where The Shawshank Redemption premiered on September 13, 1994.
Many other movie scenes and music videos were filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory. This includes the Russian prison scene at the beginning the 1997 movie, Air Force One. It was shot in the West Cell Block. Today, there are still two enormous pictures of communist Russian leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin hanging side-by-side down a wall in the Central Guard Room.
In the first tier of the West Cell Block is one cell that stands out from the rest. It is painted red and has gold bars. This was done for the filming of a Li’l Wayne “Go DJ” rap video. Some of the other cells were restored for the filming of Godsmack’s “Awake” music video.
Film crews weren’t the first to leave behind reminders of their presence. When the Ohio State Reformatory was closed in 1990, what wasn’t deemed valuable enough to move was considered trash and left behind. It was expected to be demolished with the rest of the building.
Fortunately, a group of people saw the value in preserving the reformatory. The Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society (MRPS) formed in 1992 after the prison’s back buildings were leveled and only the castle-like main structure remained. The Richland Correctional Facility was built where the old reformatory’s factories and out building used to stand. And even further back is the Mansfield Correctional Institute. The remaining planned demolition of the old prison was halted. MRPS took control in 1995 and took ownership in November, 2000.
When volunteers organized to clean up the structure, they found that debris was left everywhere. Much of that debris is strategically placed throughout the prison. It includes inmate clothing, X-rays and other health records, and personal belongings. In some cells, old torn personal letters are pieced together and placed on top of old metal bunk bed frames.
The first tours started in 1996. Two years later, the first ghost hunt was facilitated. Both were small in scale and few and far between. Today, the prison is open daily for self-guided tours. Guided tours are available on Sundays covering the West Tower, East Cell Block, Hollywood, and Behind the Scenes. Since getting around the prison requires extensive stair climbing, a modified cell block tour is available for those with limited mobility. Ghost Walks and Ghost Hunts are periodically scheduled throughout the year. Private events and group tours are also available. And every Halloween season features a Haunted Prison Experience with actors, animatronics and props. Directions, pricing, schedules and other details are found at www.OhioStateReformatory.com.
The following video outtakes are for your amusement:
Here are more photos from the cutting room floor: