by | Jul 26, 2021 | Lisa Black | 5 comments

Lisa Black in front of the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield

Don’t worry if you recognize the imposing stone structure—it doesn’t mean you have a criminal record. The Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield was used in several movies but particularly featured in The Shawshank Redemption. The stunning architecture, however, doesn’t need residual Hollywood glory to impress.

During a recent trip to Ohio to hang out at a rented house among the hills, after biking and canoeing and making s’mores over a campfire, we toured the reformatory. Despite the Romanesque castle-like appearance, the structure was designed to be a prison from the start, opening in 1896 after ten years of construction. The Cleveland architect based it on a castle in France and wanted the limestone building to be as inspiring as it was intimidating, since the goal was to reform and rehabilitate instead of punish.  

The inmates sent there were too old for juvenile corrections but had committed relatively minor offenses. They were to receive three things—religion, education, and a trade. I was impressed that incoming prisoners were tested for a full four to six weeks to assess their level of education, abilities, and psychological stability. The reformatory would be their home for eighteen months; they would be released after that if they showed sincere progress. If not, in for another eighteen. This may sound a bit crazy to us today, but it worked: the warden reported only a 10% recidivism rate. Current rates today are reported as anywhere from 65-85%, though it’s generally lower for nonviolent offenses such as Reformatory inmates may have committed.

Warden’s office

The Reformatory was influenced by a reform movement in America that began before the Civil War and emphasized the importance of impartiality, routine and non-idleness to benefit the inmates. Also, strict cleanliness—tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the U.S. and the close quarters of a prison made it a special danger. As for non-idleness, the inmates could work at the furniture or shoe factory, the print or machine shops, the power plant, or the farm which provided a great deal of the prison’s food. Religious services of every stripe were provided and encouraged—as were sports and even outside performers to put on plays and musical recitals.

Cell block

This is not to make the prison a pleasant place to be, especially as an increase in crime during Prohibition brought on overcrowding. As I toured the cells I realized that not only are they half the size of what you see in the movie, they were shared by two inmates in bunk beds. Mansfield’s fortunes continued to change after a fire at the maximum-security Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, a tragedy that killed three hundred and twenty-two people. This led to two hundred of those maximum-security prisoners being transferred to the ‘intermediate’ prison in Mansfield, which increased both overcrowding and the dangerous quality of the inmates.

Prison reform has always interested me. I read up on it as research for a few of my books. I found one author who suggested that instead of minimum, medium and maximum levels there should be ten different levels of incarceration. The worst offenders would start at 1, with absolutely nothing in their cell. For level 2, one book at a time, level 3, a radio and a book, and so on up to a halfway house at 10. He thought this would provide great incentive for good behavior because no one would want to go down a level.

I thought a similar tweak would be to segregate prisoners by age, in five-year increments, so a fifty year old inmate wouldn’t have to worry about attack from a guy half his age. I used that idea in a different way in my juvenile detention facility in Suffer the Children—the kids’ secure areas each held only two age groups and they moved on their birthday, no exceptions. It might break up friendships, but as with adults, hanging out with types like their fellow inmates most likely contributed to their incarceration in the first place.

My book Blunt Impact revolved around a towering prison under construction, one with a radical interior design. Assuming inmates must be most afraid of other inmates, I designed the cells to have educational resources, exercise and even a caged balcony for some fresh air, so that inmates would never leave their cells. Boring, but safe. Inmates could talk to their neighbors all they wanted, but no one had to worry about being shivved in the lunch line. Perhaps not practical, but if I had to go to prison, it’s what I would prefer.

Despite various reform efforts over the years, the United States puts more people in jail per capita than any country in the world. But I’m not terribly comfortable with many European countries where many convicted of murder only serve ten or so years. Surely there has to be better way. It’s a vast, sprawling topic that could barely be covered in a college course, so I won’t try to tackle it in any real way here.

Lisa Black in a cell

By the 1980s Mansfield’s situation had deteriorated so much that a group of inmates sued the state of Ohio over their conditions, and won in federal court. The Reformatory closed for good in 1990 and sat empty for several years until local activists purchased the building from the state for one dollar. They renovated several rooms on the first floor but left the rest of it as is.

But if you ever find yourself in Mansfield, Ohio, check out the magnificent architecture of their very pretty, supposedly haunted, available for corporate events, (ex-) prison.

Would you host your next corporate event at this uniquely pretty former prison?

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  1. Christine L Goff

    I love the idea of hosting a corporate retreat at Mansfield prison. A great jumping off place for a thriller. Sort of a contemporary Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. Makes me think of The Haunting of Hill House.

  2. Rogue Women Writers

    What an interesting history of this prison! When one reads your thrillers, Lisa, it is obvious that you have gone to great lengths to research and in many cases visit the settings! …. Karna Small Bodman

  3. Carla Neggers

    Interesting article! Something to do after kayaking. 🙂 The Charles Street Jail in Boston is now the luxury Liberty Hotel. I’ve never stayed there but I’d love to.

  4. Lisa Black

    The jail-now-hotel in Boston sounds fascinating! Something for the bucket list.

  5. Jenny Milchman

    Sounds like a movement we need to return to–and sounds like a great little vacay, Lisa. Thanks for the eye-opening post!