Upon its opening in 1890, the prison was an intermediate penitentiary, a facility where first-time offenders who were too violent for industrial schools could serve their time. Inmates were taught basic trades for release and reintegration into society. However, as prison populations swelled in the 20th century, the reformatory was forced to accept inmates convicted of more serious and violent crimes.
By the 1960s, the reformatory was getting crowded, and overpopulation breeds conflict and disease. At times, guards were even forced to double the occupancy in death row cells, which in at least one instance resulted in an inmate's death. During morning checks, guards noticed a prisoner missing from one of the cells; upon inspection, the prisoner's body was found broken and stuffed beneath the bunk. Instances like this one forced Ohio State Reformatory to close its doors in 1972.
A Violent Past
While the prison's day-to-day operations were enough to cast a shadow over the site, there were certain events guaranteed to cause a spike in Ohio State's paranormal activity. In the late 1930s, a riot broke out in the East Cell Block. The guards condemned 120 rioters to share 12 solitary confinement cells for one week without food or water. This punishment drove many to the brink of madness and death.
During its 94 years as a working prison, 154,000 inmates passed through the gates of the Ohio State Reformatory. Many died of diseases like influenza and tuberculosis, some went mad, others hung themselves and at least one inmate lit himself on fire. Just outside the reformatory stand 215 numbered graves, a vivid testament to the harsh reality of prison life.
The ghosts of these violent and maltreated men are not easily silenced. Visitors and tour guides have been pushed and punched by unseen forces. As with other haunted locations, many claim to feel an inexplicable chill while on prison grounds. Additionally, witnesses have heard cell doors slam and seen dark apparitions. Even the road leading to the Ohio State Reformatory seems haunted. Local legend suggests it is the ghost of Phoebe Wise, a notorious Mansfield hermit and eccentric.
The prison is open for guided tours on Sundays and Tuesdays through Fridays. Movie buffs can participate in the Shawshank Trail, where they can hear behind-the-scenes stories and view those parts of the prison featured in the movie. From September 25 through November 1, those looking for extra thrills can sign up for the Haunted Prison Experience, where the halls of Ohio State Reformatory are made even more menacing by eerie actors and gruesome animatronics.