20 years after movie, ‘Shawshank' still a tour site

Ohio State Reformatory thriving from tourists

MANSFIELD, Ohio - In the 118 year history of the Ohio State Reformatory, the prison’s lasting legacy has been cemented by the escape of two fictional inmates and a load of ghost stories.

This week marked the 20th anniversary of the release of “The Shawshank Redemption,” a film that has come to define the term cult classic in the decades since.

Convicted murderer Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, executes an elaborate escape plan from Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine. But the prison you see in that 1994 motion picture was nearly 1,000 miles from The Pine Tree State, in Mansfield, Ohio.

The Ohio State Reformatory officially closed its doors in 1990 but remains a tourist attraction for the city, in large part because of the film’s countless fans.

“We have people all the way from Japan that come specifically to see the prison because of ‘Shawshank’,” said Becky McKinnell, vice president of the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. “It’s a huge draw for people.”

Volunteers like McKinnell, a full-time 6th grade social studies teacher — who spoke for the interview during her break — arrange tours and special events at the prison.

“We have a handful of year-round staff members, but the bulk of the work is done by volunteers,” she said.

Much of the prison was torn down in order to build a pair of updated lockups but about 250,000 square feet of the original facilities still exist. McKinnell said it’s likely the entire site would have been levelled if it weren’t for the filmmakers’ decision to use the prison.

“The real reason we were able to get the money to hold tours was because of ‘Shawshank’ being filmed there,” she said. “It convinced creditors to take a risk and now we’re doing really well.”

The organization celebrated the film’s 20th anniversary over Labor Day weekend, seeing a record 4,000 guests take a tour. “We dressed rooms up the way they looked in the movie,” McKinnell said. The 1946 black-and-white film “Gilda,” starring Rita Hayworth, was also screened inside the prison — that movie served as an inspiration to the characters of “The Shawshank Redemption.”

The Ohio State Reformatory offers several tours of the facilities. (Photo: MRPS - Facebook)

“The Shawshank Redemption” wasn’t the first — or last — time the Ohio State Reformatory was used during a shoot. In 1989, part of “Tango & Cash” was filmed there, as well as 1997’s “Air Force One.” Music videos by Lil Wayne and Godsmack have also been shot against the backdrop of the prison since its closure.

“We would love to have some more movies shot there,” McKinnell said. She pointed to several lesser known projects that were filmed at the prison, including a few direct-to-video movies and a 1976 comedy called “Harry and Walter Go to New York,” which starred Diane Keaton and James Caan.

The Ohio State Reformatory also has the reputation of being a hotspot for paranormal activity. Through Nov. 1, the prison is hosting a “Haunted Prison Experience,” and McKinnell said the MRPS regularly organizes ghost hunts.

Since most of the restoration team is made up of volunteers, where does the cash go? McKinnell said maintenance is a constant and costly undertaking.

“All that money is going straight back into the building,” she said. “We are currently replacing about 60 cell block windows.” McKinnell added that the windows cost $15,000 each.

To learn more about the Ohio State Reformatory, check out their website at MRPS.org.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.

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