Through my adventures, I have experienced quite a bit, always getting a taste of something just a bit different than the last with every explore. Oh, and dust spores, you can often taste those as well, floating atop the stale air of a water damaged home. I’ve got to be honest though, it’s a wild sight seeing that large handfuls of former prisoners were jailed for grand theft…equestrianism? Yes, you probably thought right, stealing another man’s horse. Wait, prisoners? Oh, perhaps I should start from the beginning, my bad.
Welcome to the Ohio State Reformatory of Mansfield, Ohio. In 1885 it was decided that this site would be the official placement of the new Intermediate, and with the help of architect Levi T. Scofield from Cleveland, the project began under the laboring and construction work of F.F. Schnitzer, bringing this beauty to life during the years of 1886 through 1910. From its great Romanesque exterior walls to its interior filled with massive cellblocks, this incredible space remains a cold and dark reminder of the past lives lived out within it. A list of offenders turned to prisoners illustrates a vibrant history of crime during the late 1800s through the early 1900s, showcasing a very strange comparison to that of today.
From its beginning, finally opening its doors in 1896, when black and white striped prison suits were still general attire, the Mansfield Reformatory welcomed 150 prisoners of all types for a luxurious stay inside its cold and solid walls. These prisoners, who were carted by train from Columbus, Ohio, were immediately put to work digging holes where the plumbing came to be installed until completion in 1910. Looking down the main hallway, a grand stairwell stands monumentally, branching off on both the left and right sides as you reach the top. Though this stairwell may seem to be a grand hand-carved wooden masterpiece, there are some differences not easily recognizable upon first glance that may take you by surprise. This beautiful stairwell is in fact not wood, but carved steel, preventing it from becoming a possible fire hazard.
The reformatory still holds two of the world’s largest cell blocks, with the East block still clutching to a world record of a towering 6-tier free standing section of rusted, decaying steel. Paint peels from the bars, falling to the ground outside of each cell, which all lay equally as disturbed on the inside. These human cages were not always in such a state of rusted decay, but years ago held hundreds and thousands of criminals from all over the US, California to Texas and beyond.
Through 94 years of heavy use, so many moments had been witnessed here, leaving forever a large stamp of history. If the walls of this enormous structure could talk, I’m sure they could tell you all about the 200 plus deaths, which occurred within prison grounds, two of them being former guards who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were murdered during the attempted escape of two convicted and jailed felons.
Due to years of overcrowding and inhumane living conditions The Boyd Consent Decree ordered the facility to be closed in 1986. Being that the chosen year was considerably too soon to have everything in order, such as the construction of a brand new facility, the schedule was pushed to 1990 when they finally pushed closure of the prison’s doors, welcoming prisoners to the newly built facility directly across from the now former. This newer facility can still be seen when looking directly from the West cellblock.
Like strings of a piano, the imagery inside this rotting structure resonated the most beautiful of melodies through pure scenery, progressing through progressions from room to decaying room, broken and detuned but filling the air with the shaking sound of a beautifully harsh dissonance, blanketed by light reaching in from outside, finally creating a perfect fusion to display the brilliance of these broken rooms.
Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, this area has one hell of a story behind it, and if there were a place to house spirits of the past, this would for sure be near the top of a great list. Before a prison inhabited a place atop these grounds, in the year 1861, a training center for soldiers of the Civil War was stationed in place. Over 4,000 soldiers were trained for action here at what was known as Camp Mordecai Bartley, named in honor of a Mansfield man who served as the governor of Ohio in the 1840’s. Spirits of past prisoners now wander these cells in peace, free to move about as they please. This got me to thinking however, as there is always the notion of “what if,” I thought to myself, what if some former prisoners are forever trapped behind bars, that even if in our world when the doors remain open, in their alternate world the bars are sealed shut, holding them in for all eternity? One can take away so much from wandering a massive place with as rich a history trapped between the walls of a space such as this.
In 1995, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society was formed, turning the former prison into a museum offering tours to enlighten and educate, while also working to stabilize the building from further deterioration. Windows in the East block have been replaced, and efforts have been made to further stabilize the entire structure.
Nearing the end of my visit, as I wandered off towards the building’s exit, I overheard a man talking of what seemed to be past experiences inside the reformatory. I slowly closed in towards the conversation to realize that sitting right in front of me was a man by the name of Dave, a former guard of the penitentiary. I quickly became quite interested in all he had to tell of his time on duty during the year of 1947. According to Dave, the Eastern cellblock at that time was used for solitary confinement, until finally being relocated to cells residing in lower levels of the building, unknown until today to any of us! It was amazing just listening to this man speak of memories experienced while on the job, structures and rooms that used to sit in the depths of the building and more. Deep within the depths of this building, during the 1940’s there had been a small room of tiny cells measuring 4 feet by 4 feet creating a square where prisoners would be forced to curl up and sleep, as it was far too small to stretch out. Just outside of this section, for a short period of time, people had actually been chained to a wall and given the floor as a toilet. Shortly after this time, of course rules and laws had changed and the prison was forced to provide different means of living for inmates.
After sitting down for a while and talking to this man, I asked if I could photograph him, and his response was a very positive ‘yes.’ Him being honored to have his photo taken by gave one of the greatest feelings experienced during the day, as I was also honored being given the chance to take his photo. Dave is one of the few remaining from that time and seeing how happy he was to have shared his stories with us was beyond words amazing. It would be an awful shame to have seen so much but told none.
So there I was, I had just spent my day surrounded by cold, rusted steel and the crumbling of lead paint, chipping and curling from the curved surface of prison cell bars, not only content with a full history lesson and some greatly interesting photos, but happy with where I was in life. I’m happy that I am not in prison.