See Inside The Hauntingly Abandoned Prison Where The Shawshank Redemption Was Filmed
By David Rule
The Shawshank Redemption is one of cinema’s greatest triumphs. But did you know that the iconic movie was actually filmed on location in what had been a real-life jail? It wasn’t in use for incarceration at the time, obviously, but it certainly looked the part. Over 25 years later, though, the place is totally abandoned and seriously creepy – even for a former prison. Take a look inside...
The Ohio State Reformatory hadn’t been closed long when they filmed Shawshank. It stopped being used as a prison in 1990, and the movie came out 4 years later, so it made the ideal backdrop. But today the complex is a haunting shell of its former self. Still, something about it is eerily beautiful.
Yes, this now-abandoned place is somehow alluring and unsettling at the same time. That’s probably part of what makes it so memorable in The Shawshank Redemption. It’s no wonder that the filmmakers saw it as the ideal setting to portray both the brutality of prison life for their characters and a place that would change their lives forever.
But the Reformatory was a pretty terrifying place in its day, and that leaves a curious legacy. Many who visit the site, which is near the Ohio city of Mansfield, are searching for the ghosts that are said to roam there. Yes, phantoms apparently stalk the old prison walkways, and specters can be heard murmuring within the empty cells.
It wasn’t always a tough prison, though: the Reformatory was built with the aim of helping those kept within its walls. The idea was that the prisoners would walk away with faith in God, skills that they could use to make money lawfully and a decent education. But in time it would become renowned for its brutality.
Men were locked up in the Reformatory right up until the start of the 1990s, when it ceased to operate as a prison. It was actually scheduled to be pulled down until scouts for The Shawshank Redemption tipped it as a location. So it had a reprieve and became the setting for the vast majority of the film.
The outside of the Reformatory still resembles the “Shawshank State Penitentiary” of the film. It’s a beautiful, impressive building. Popular with visitors, it’s become the focus of tourism in Mansfield. The city, often called The Heart of Ohio, houses a carousel park as well, making it the state’s “Carousel Capital” as well as its “Fun Center.” But at the prison, the fun ends…
You can see why the architect of the prison, Levi Scofield, believed that it would impress those who were incarcerated inside it. The complex, fashioned from limestone, wasn’t just meant to cow the inmates. It was also supposed to lift them up, which is in keeping with the purpose that’d led to it being built.
When it was first conceived, the prison was named the “Intermediate Penitentiary.” That’s because it took in those who weren’t young enough to be considered juveniles but hadn’t done anything bad enough for the state prison. This meant that they would be sent to Mansfield instead of Columbus, where the state penitentiary was then situated.
The Reformatory started to come into being in 1886, but the project soon went over budget. So when the youngsters who’d be its residents started to enter the prison in 1896, the building work was far from finished. On the upside, they were a ready-made workforce and were used to help finish the construction.
That wasn’t a huge problem, though, given that the prisoners were in the Reformatory for the purposes of reform, not just to be punished. They learned skills that it was hoped would help them find work when they left the prison. If they did well, they were let go after only a year and a half. On the other hand, their sentence would be doubled if they proved difficult.
Many of the youngsters thrived at the Reformatory. They gained a lot from their time in the prison, and few would return to incarceration. So helping to build their own jail wasn’t such a big price to pay for getting a start in life that they possibly wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Mind you, this reform mission didn’t last long. As the prison neared its completion in 1910, it started to admit older criminals. And these guys weren’t getting the benefit of God, school and trade. No, the Reformatory’s nature changed from offering youngsters tough love to something much more dark and unwelcoming.
Across the United States, criminal activity was on the rise. And that meant that there were many more men being sentenced to imprisonment. In time, the youngsters whom the prison had been designed for weren’t even being sent there anymore. The Reformatory instead became the new home of some of the nation’s most notorious criminals.
This process took time, though, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the reform model was abandoned altogether. In that decade, the authorities withdrew the funding for rehabilitation and put it into making the Reformatory a high-security prison. It wasn’t built for that use, of course, but when it stood in for one in The Shawshank Redemption, it sure looked the part.
The cells were stacked over six levels, creating a vast warren where brutality reigned. The inmates, struggling to survive in conditions that many dubbed “inhumane,” turned to violence – and even murder. The guards weren’t immune from danger, either, with more than one being killed during escape attempts.
The worst place in the facility was the area used for solitary confinement. Cramped and uncomfortable, these cells were horrifying places to be alone in. When the lights were off, which for some prisoners would be all day and night, they were entirely dark. But sometimes, they were lit continually – and the staff would switch up times for meals, meaning that prisoners had no idea whether it was daytime or night.
If solitary was bad, the very worst was the “hole.” Deep beneath the prison, this was where the convicts who proved the most difficult to handle found themselves. And the hole was so bad that they would find it challenging to keep their sanity there. Many would simply go crazy after being thrown into it.
Prisoners were piled into this brutal institution. It housed more than 150,000 of them over the years, with 200 or so meeting their maker while inside its walls. The prison was stuffed full of inmates, with the lack of space adding to the horrible conditions inside. Its life finally came to an end after the inmates took legal action over the horrors they were being subjected to.
The prisoners made that move because in the 1980s the prison had become so bad to live in that they needed to take drastic action. So they brought a legal case against Ohio state. It was successful, and the state had to build a more up-to-date complex. And at the end of 1990 the Reformatory’s time as a place of incarceration came to an end.
Once the facility no longer had a practical use, the state decided it was time to pull down the Reformatory. But as we noted, it was the perfect setting for a prison movie in the eyes of the The Shawshank Redemption’s producers. And they’d end up filming most of the picture in Mansfield.
It wasn’t the first time the Reformatory had been used by Hollywood, either. No, a few years earlier, while it was still in use as a prison, it’d already been the backdrop for a couple of films. Parts of 1975’s Harry and Walter Go to New York and 1989’s Tango and Cash were filmed at the facility.
Neither of those films had the success of The Shawshank Redemption, though. The latter’s a slow-moving piece set during the 1950s and 1960s. It stars Morgan Freeman as lifer “Red Redding,” who reflects on his time alongside Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins. In the film, Dufresne faces two life sentences for murders he didn’t commit.
Released at a time when most hit movies packed a powerful action punch, it wasn’t a huge success at first. Critics liked it, though, and it scooped several Oscar nominations – yet audiences gave it a miss. So it didn’t make much money, failing to earn back its budget in the U.S. But that would all change over time.
When The Shawshank Redemption played on cable and on video, it reached a much wider audience. And what’d been a box-office bomb would in time become a huge success. By 2014 it was crowned as the most popular film on movie website IMDb.
But the movie wasn’t much fun to make by all accounts. It had a schedule that spelled hard work for its crew, who beavered away inside the prison for three long, hot months. Sometimes filming would take up 18 hours in a day. “We were lucky to have Sundays off,” director Frank Darabont told Vanity Fair in 2014.
The director found the Reformatory a “very bleak place,” and his lead actor agreed. “You could feel the pain,” Tim Robbins observed. “It was the pain of thousands of people.” And the movie guaranteed authenticity by hiring people who’d themselves been convicts and could testify to the brutalities experienced by inmates.
Once The Shawshank Redemption had wrapped, there was no further use for the prison, and it was left to rot for a while. Then locals got together to buy the building. They gave the state the huge fee of one American buck! But they spent many more dollars in fixing it up a little, though as we can see, today it looks very different from the way it did in the film.
Now the Reformatory’s the focus of The Shawshank Trail, which the local visitors bureau created in the late 2000s. People who come to Mansfield can follow a map that directs them around the locations featured in the film.
Every year, thousands of people come to Mansfield to see the Reformatory. The tourists can walk its gloomy corridors and imagine themselves locked away for life. Thankfully, though, the violence is all a thing of the past! But the interior of the prison is still a looming, menacing location.
It isn’t ugly, though. As the paint on its walls has decayed, it’s become a frazzled echo of its former self, and now the walls are intriguing. The corroded paintwork makes for better photographs now than it did back when it was first slapped on.
To some visitors, the eerie emptiness of the prison seems to echo with the sounds of the ghosts of the men who died there. Those who feel particularly bold can even explore the facility at night. Yes, ghost-hunting takes place in the Reformatory’s dark corners late in the day, when the former jail remains open to visitors.
When photographer Cindy Vasko visited the facility, she was impressed by its architecture. “Upon entering the prison, I was quite taken with the massiveness of the facility,” she told British newspaper the Daily Mail in 2015. “Multi-level floors of cell blocks greet a visitor. The two large cell blocks are the largest I have ever seen – six tiers.”
Vasko also told the newspaper that the prison was a “cold structure.” In the cell blocks, exposed brickwork holds no warmth. And the rusting cell doors are forbidding, barriers that seem to keep you out as efficiently as they once kept those locked up in. It feels as though you may be safer in the better lighting of the corridors.
Not all the cells were identical, as Vasko noted. She explained, “The one cell block has cells a bit larger than the other, so I assume one group of prisoners felt a little luckier than the other due to the added living space.” But photos of the prison reveal that the inmates didn’t live in anything close to luxury.
Vasko told the Daily Mail that the Reformatory also showed signs of its past as a film location. “Since the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, was filmed here, there are markings along the way noting movie significance,” she said. “Like other abandoned prisons, Mansfield doesn’t have a shortage of abundant peeling paint and rust.
But dilapidated as it may look now, things were far worse back in the day, according to Reformatory historian Cheryl Knerman. The volunteer, known as “Ma” for her long service, told website Tour Guide To Fun, “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.”
A former inmate confirmed Ma’s impression. “I was in there from 1987 until right before it shut down,” he recalled. “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.”
Nowadays, the noise is likely to be made by a private party. Yes, you can hold a bash on the premises! In 2011 another volunteer, tour guide Rob Klarman, told broadcaster NPR that the prison was in high demand, with an extraordinary range of events being put on within its walls.
“There are 14 weddings here scheduled for this year,” Klarman told NPR. “There are already four or five scheduled for 2012. And there’s one wedding scheduled for 2013 already. So word has gotten out. It had spread. It’s just amazing.” And the Reformatory’s society is still going strong – the prison is open for tours, ghost hunting and all sorts of events.