Hollywood’s Shawshank Prison may still be harboring ghosts from its real prison past
Mansfield Reformatory’s shocking
- Shadow figures are reportedly seen peeking out of open cells
- Sounds of footsteps and rattling chains have been heard in the cell blocks
- Disembodied voices are commonly heard throughout the complex
- Visitors have reported being grabbed and pulled at by unseen hands
- Uneasy, sick feelings are sometimes reported by visitors to The Hole
- Phantom screaming has been heard in Cell #13
- Light anomalies and apparitions have been encountered in the prison chapel
- Claims of cold spots and unexplained gusts of wind are common
Mansfield Reformatory’s Infamous History
Right beside the modern Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio, the former Mansfield Reformatory looms large over the new prison and, similarly, over the entire community around it. A true castle of correctional past, the unshakably intimidating stone façade of the old prison manages to be both coldly uninviting and entrancingly intriguing.
Perhaps it’s this sense of intrigue that drives thousands of visitors to the prison’s gates every year for a chance to tour the decaying cellblocks within. While it first gained a national name as a movie set, Mansfield Reformatory quickly gained a reputation as a place that is supremely, some say undeniably, haunted.
Timeline of Mansfield Reformatory's History
Swipe or use timeline points to see Mansfield Reformatory through the years
In 1867, the state of Ohio began seeking an ideal place to build a new Intermediary Penitentiary. The hope was for the state to have a prison to serve as a middle ground for young inmates convicted of crimes too serious for boys’ schools but not serious enough for the higher security prison in Columbus. As it turns out, the town of Mansfield had just the place: A former Civil War training camp just north of town that was begging for redevelopment. Finally, in 1886, construction of the new prison in Mansfield began.
All told, the construction process of Mansfield Reformatory took 24 years to complete due to budget constraints. Though the complex was still under construction, Mansfield Reformatory opened to its first inmates in 1896. The first batch of 150 convicts were put to work building aspects of the prison that weren’t complete yet, including the plumbing system and the main exterior walls. By the time the prison was finally finished in 1910, it sported the tallest free-standing cellblocks in the world at six stories high.
While many prisons of the era were known for rough conditions and harsh punishments, the administration of Mansfield Reformatory wanted it to be a place for just that: reform. In its early years, the young men sentenced to time at Mansfield got vocational training through on-site work and construction, and were also instructed on a variety of subjects from prison classrooms. Inmates in this era could enjoy basic school education in subjects like reading and mathematics, as well as trade education in engineering and mechanics.
Alas, as often happened with prisons in the early 20th century, Mansfield Reformatory was quickly overwhelmed with inmates. The prison was designed to house up to 2,000 inmates with one or two inmates per cell. But, by 1934, some cells had four or five inmates stuffed into them, and others had even more than that. Though it was designed as an ‘intermediary’ prison for inmates who could still potentially be reformed, Mansfield Reformatory was soon overcome with crime and violence as a result of this overcrowding.
Through the first half of the 20th century, attacks on guards and prison staff were commonplace. Some guards were bludgeoned or shot dead during escape attempts, while others were killed in acts of revenge. The most well-known occurrence of Mansfield revenge killings came from a pair of inmates, John West and Robert Daniels, who were released for good behavior in early 1948. Just a few months later, the duo returned to Mansfield and kidnapped prison superintendent John Neibel, as well as his wife and daughter.
Despite many guards and staff being assaulted or killed at Mansfield, countless prisoners suffered and died due to living conditions in the prison during its operation. Inmate-on-inmate violence was incredibly common, with makeshift knives, shivs, and other weapons being confiscated from cells regularly. Additionally, sanitary conditions at Mansfield Reformatory by the mid-20th century were abysmal, and infections like influenza and tuberculosis ran rampant through the cellblocks.
It’s estimated that 200 or more people died at Mansfield Reformatory during its operation, and the passage of time never brought any reprieve for either inmates or workers there. By the 1980s, the prison was subject to protests and media coverage over its poor condition, leading to a successful prisoner-led class action lawsuit to close the facility.
Mansfield Reformatory transferred its last inmates to other prisons in late 1990, and its life as a functional prison came to an end. Officials soon attempted to demolish the building, but other public leaders had plans to use the facility as a film set. Mansfield Reformatory had been featured in films when it was still in operation, so Hollywood was already familiar with the intimidating Ohio complex. The facility was soon utilized as the main setting of the 1994 Stephen King film adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption.
Prison of the Stars
Its appearance in The Shawshank Redemption made Mansfield Reformatory a suddenly in-demand shooting location, and it went on to be featured in numerous other works in the 1990s, including the Harrison Ford film Air Force One. But, not long after the first tours of the building started, Mansfield Reformatory started to build a reputation not as a film set, but as a menagerie of all things ghostly.
Mansfield Reformatory’s Ghostly Cellblocks
In a building as infamously haunted as Mansfield Reformatory, there are understandably a long list of ghost stories and reported paranormal encounters. Many of these stories and encounters stem from purportedly paranormal happenings in the prison’s large, main cellblocks.
A common claim from visitors to these areas is the appearance of unexplainable shadow figures. Some of these dark apparitions have been seen walking up and down the cell blocks, while others have reportedly been spotted peeking into and out of open cells on the blocks.
Along with misty apparitions lurking through the blocks, strange and unexplainable sounds are commonplace at Mansfield Reformatory today. Disembodied voices are some of the most often reported sound anomalies, and the claims relating to them vary broadly. Some have claimed to hear whispers in cells, like cell neighbors muttering amongst themselves, while others have reportedly heard strange laughter, pained moaning, and even screaming at times. One cell in particular, Cell #13, is notorious for sounds of screaming billowing from it. The story goes that an inmate once burned alive in that cell, and his screams continue to echo through time.
Other curious and possibly paranormal sounds heard around the Mansfield cell blocks are the sounds of rattling or dropping chains, while other areas are known for mysteriously rhythmic tapping that some have said sounds like morse code communication. Phantom footsteps are also regular occurrences in the building.
In the cell blocks, tourists and paranormal investigators both have reported the sensations of being grabbed or tugged at by unseen forces. Some have claimed to feel hands latch onto their arms or pants pockets as they pass certain cells. In Cell #13, the burn victim’s spirit also reportedly reaches out to touch those who linger in his space for too long; his grasp is said to be especially warm.
Another well-known paranormal hotspot around the prison is The Hole. The darkest area of Mansfield Reformatory, both literally and figuratively, The Hole served as a 20-cell solitary confinement wing for many years. Today, visitors claim to still feel the weight of sorrow and suffering in this area, and some are even overcome with strange and sudden feelings of uneasiness and even sickness. Visitors have left the space nauseous and dizzy with no known reason why. Additionally, as with the upstairs cell blocks, shifting shadow figures are commonly reported in The Hole area.
Film Sets to Phantoms: Mansfield Reformatory has Seen it All
Over the years since closure, the Mansfield Reformatory has gained a nationwide reputation as one of the most forebodingly haunted places in the entire United States. Beginning with its use as a setting in popular 1990s films like The Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One, the American public swiftly fell in strange love with this desolately beautiful building. But, once people got their first chances to see the place for themselves, stories of paranormal encounters soon exploded onto the scene.
The building’s later appearances on popular paranormal TV programs like Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Syfy’s Ghost Hunters turbocharged the public’s interest in the prison’s ghost stories. That unstoppable intrigue continues still today, as Mansfield Reformatory entertains and educates thousands of people each year through daytime tours, special events, and overnight paranormal investigations. So, while the prison façade may still be most famous as a set piece of The Shawshank Redemption, there may still be a good few spirits remaining in Mansfield Reformatory, awaiting redemptions of their own.