Inside the haunted prison of The Shawshank Redemption

The cavernous old Ohio State Reformatory is eerie enough to give you chills – even if you don’t hear the clanking of cell doors and prisoners’ cries.

Stand in front of the Ohio State Reformatory today and you might have a hard time believing it once operated as a maximum-security prison. With its soaring French château-like spires, intricate brickwork and stained glass windows, the late-19th-century building looks more like a grand hotel that once housed the rich and famous.

But walk through its long, institutional hallways, past the massive cells with their rusting barred doors and dirty, sagging bunks, and you just might recall the bleak, hopeless prison of the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, shot here in 1993 and celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, the movie follows a man falsely convicted of murder on his decades-long quest for freedom and redemption.

As you stroll the reformatory’s corridors, you might think you hear the clanking of cell doors and prisoners’ cries too. For believers, the former prison in the city of Mansfield, Ohio, is one of the most haunted spots in the United States. It’s a place where the ghosts of abused inmates and staff with heavy consciences roam the halls, moving equipment and slamming doors. Indeed, even without ghosts, the building’s crumbling walls, peeling paint and cracked windows are eerie enough to provoke chills.

The building opened in 1896 with the goal of offering young male non-violent first-time offenders the chance of rehabilitation, rather than condemning them to the state penitentiary in Columbus. The community was so proud of its new, progressive institution that the local Rickland Shield and Banner newspaper declared the groundbreaking “Mansfield’s Greatest Day”, lauding the reformatory for its steps toward prison reform.

“There was a charter school on the grounds and inmates [were] trained in everything from woodwork to farming,” said Ron Puff, one of the reformatory’s head tour guides. “They even produced their own food.” At first, recidivism rates among former inmates were as low as 10% to 15%, Puff said. “But laws changed and that system fell apart and it became more of a [standard] prison,” he added.

In the 1970s, in fact, the reformatory was declared a maximum-security prison and it developed a reputation for what activists called brutalising, inhumane conditions. “The Hole” made famous by The Shawshank Redemption was based on a real place: an area where inmates who were deemed in need of more severe punishment were placed in solitary confinement and made to sleep on concrete floors. Today, you can climb down into the guts of the reformatory and visit the Hole. Even years after the last prisoner left, it evokes a cold, dark horror.

When the reformatory finally ceased operation in 1990, after decades of protests, Ohio state officials wanted to tear it down. But before that could happen, Shawshank location scouts took an interest in the building, drawn to its architecture – a combination of Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne that includes high, arched windows and elegant turrets. It was because of Shawshank, Puff said, that the building was saved.

“Fortunately, after the movie was made, [preservationists] were able to talk with the state who determined that the front half of the building, containing cellblocks and the administration area, would not be torn down,” Puff said.

A cottage tourism industry has sprung up around the film – and it reaches well beyond the former prison. In and around Mansfield, you can follow a dedicated Shawshank Trail to see Brooks’ halfway house, the old oak tree where Andy buried his fortune and the woods where, in the movie’s opening scene, Andy sat in his car, clutching a revolver.

But at the centre of it all, of course, is the Ohio State Reformatory and its long history.

“You don’t find buildings built this way any more, especially prisons,” Puff said. "So [preservationists’] goal was to save and preserve this site and the history of reform. They wanted people to remember what we had going here in Mansfield.”

In fact, these days, several of the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society’s tour guides are former inmates. “One of them was there in the 1960s,” Puff said. “And another was there in the 1980s, so their tours are a little different because they were in the same cellblocks but under different laws. They can give the history better than most.”

Walking through the bleak cellblocks with someone who once lived there offers a powerful reminder of the building’s past. But now, when the darkness and whispers of restless spirits become too much, visitors can do what prisoners couldn’t – stroll right out the front doors.

The reformatory is open to the public from April to September, offering self-guided overnight ghost hunts and guided tours of the purported paranormal hot spots. Every October, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society hands the prison over to Haunted X, which, for the entire month, transforms the building into a haunted house, complete with actors, props and animatronics.