It has been said that Mansfield Reformatory (40°47′07″N 82°30′18″W) houses the largest free standing steel cell block in the world – located in the East Cell Block. The grounds and facility buildings have been used as backdrops for various movies, music videos and paranormal TV shows; but the one that brought the facility the most fame was the movie Shawshank Redeption – which coincidentally saved the prison. We learned on the tour through the cell blocks that shortly before shooting started on the movie was supposed to start, wrecking crews were slated to knock everything down.
[FUN FACT: From the 1950s through the 1970s, Mansfield was the home of the infamous Highway Safety Foundation, the organization that created the controversial driver’s education scare films that featured gruesome film photography taken at fatal automobile accidents in the Mansfield area. -WIKIPEDIA ]
Donations and tour fees are helping to restore the facility to its former ‘glory’, if one can ever call such a building glorious. There is a haunted ‘event’ there annually, as well as ghost hunting events, which also help towards restorative efforts. One of the couples that we ran across while we were strolling through solitary confinement had several of ghost hunting devices on them – a digital recorder for EVP captures, and something else that could have been an EMF meter. This place had been on my ‘must visit’ list for awhile, so I’m really glad I got a chance to do a walkthrough yesterday.
Self guided tours are $9, and I rather like going at my own pace, so we chose that venue.
Mansfield reformatory was an equal opportunity incarceration facility – housing both male and female inmates (at least until the Ohio Reformatory for Women was opened out in Marysville in 1916) – as well prisoners of war. The more famous inmates range from From 33-year-old alcoholic bookkeeper, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), who went on to become a celebrated writer, to Mrs. Cassie L. Chadwick, a woman who, through the use of a dozen aliases, swindled businessmen out of millions of dollars before finally being tossed into the clink.
The first portion of the tour goes through the administrative building and warden facilities, which while being lovely examples of building deterioration in general, aren’t really all that remarkable. While walking through this area, we happened upon what is apparently called ‘the chair room’. Many have reported paranormal phenomena in the chair room, and the lighting is apparently kept low for maximum creepy effect. Many people didn’t want to actually go into the room, only stepping up to the door to look inside before walking away, shivering.
The room itself is effective at its intended purpose, but once I stepped inside, I actually felt more comfortable. Low lighting has the opposite effect on me – it relaxes as opposed to making me more tense or scared. After getting a feel for the room, I turned to see a child’s school chair off to the left as I looked back at the open door. Oddly enough, that was more creepy to me than the chair sitting in the middle of the room.
The immensity of the cage in the East Cell Block doesn’t hit you until you walk down into the entry from the chapel. There’s a moment of vertigo as you look down, then your brain gets smacked with how large the place is. It looks like a giant birdcage with a concrete walkway around the bottom. There are walkways along the cells on each level, between the bars around the perimeter that I imagine kept prisoners from either jumping to their deaths, or pushing guards to theirs.
The cells themselves are an exercise in claustrophobia. Two inmates were housed in each (approximately) 7×9 square feet space – with one toilet and one sink. Even looking inside the cells and seeing the complete lack of any personal space was discomfiting. Paint is peeling all throughout the facility, as well as flaking away from bars that have long ago started crawling with rust. I’m somewhat of an agorophobe, so smaller places are usually comforting – but funny how that sense of comfort disappears when you step inside, turn around and see bars behind you.
The cells in solitary looked only slightly larger than the ones in the east wing – but the complete lack of outside lighting was distressing, as I supposed was the point. Both East and West cellblock had cells that faced multiple windows, so there was lots of ambient light. The cells in the West wing were palatial in comparison, spacewise – although instead of two inmates per cell, some of these were four per cell. We wondered if prisoners ended up being transferred to the West Wing for good behavior. At one point while walking through solitary, I heard the echo of a voice say, “It only takes a couple of weeks in to make you regret the actions that put you into this place. After a few months, you learn to hate.”
The hotspots where I felt myself overwhelmed with emotion were in the showers in the East Cell Block, a blue cell in the East Cell block that I felt myself drawn into, solitary confinement and one of many of the three and a half feet high and maybe a foot and a half wide doors that were spaced throughout both the East and West cell blocks.
I found an open one, and was drawn inside. I had to scrunch down a great deal to walk in, but there was plenty of room to stand when I finally stepped in. It looked like the bottom of a very deep well. I couldn’t see how high the round walls went up, but could only imagine how dark it would get once somebody closed the door. I was immediately overcome with the need to weep, and I actually did bring my hands over my head as if trying to shield myself from something.
Before I actually collapsed into full tears, I took a deep breath and pushed way the overwhelming fear, pain and anguish that was so completely oppressive in this small space – none of it mine. I don’t know whether there are recorded incidents of people being forced into these places, but the feeling that it had definitely happened at least once in this particular space was very strong.
Immediately after taking a picture just outside the small door, something growled at me off to the left. When I turned to look, people were standing over twenty feet away, and there was nothing in the acoustics of the room that would have thrown a sound from people that far away to a point just over my shoulder.
The entire experience left me wondering about the way we treat prisoners in general; not that I haven’t had that on my mind for awhile, with the privatization of prisons currently sweeping the nation. It’s an appalling business. There are many who agree that, for some crimes, there isn’t enough suffering that a person can endure to atone for what they’ve done – but, to play devil’s advocate – at that point, are you ever really going to let such a person out into the world again, after having pushed them further towards savagery and rage?
I left really feeling for the individuals that were once incarcerated here. It disgusted me that the first transfer of prisoners into the new facilites was a local ‘event’ for the affluent of the area, where the well heeled dressed to the nines and likely had dinner and drinks after. It also really bothered me to be able to look through the bars in the East Cell block to see tables and chairs setup for what looked like a wedding reception in the building adjacent. Who has their wedding in a prison?
It’s a fairly inhumane thing we currently do to those we lock up – setting purely punitive measures and creating facilites with punishment as the main objective instead of rehabilitation; and for the merest of infractions in many cases.
I hope that soon, we figure out a better way to deal with those who break the law – and that someday we distance ourselves from prisons for profit. [Here is the full run of pictures that I took]