OSR night photo credit Scott Sukel - Brightened Up.jpg

The historic Ohio State Reformatory at night.

MANSFIELD -- A few years before Andy Dufresne chiseled a hole in the wall to escape from the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary, real inmates at the Ohio State Reformatory nearly pulled the same trick.

It was the spring of 1990, four years before the famous film made at OSR was released.

The century-old prison on the city's north side was still filled well beyond capacity with inmates, even as the new Mansfield Correctional Institution was under construction nearby.

The end was near for OSR, which would close at the end of 1990 after all of its 2,000-plus inmates were moved to the modern MANCI facility or transferred to other state institutions.

OSR was ordered closed by a federal judge, who made his ruling after prisoners filed a class-action suit, citing overcrowding and inhumane conditions. That decision came in 1986, but the shuttering of the prison was delayed while MANCI was built.

OSR 1990 escape story

This was part of the story in the Mansfield News Journal on April 7, 1990, when an elaborate escape attempt was thwarted at the former Ohio State Reformatory.

It was not a pleasant place to serve time, if such a place is possible. The towering cell blocks, now a sign of awe to thousands of visitors each year, were not a place anyone wanted to live.

It was hard to imagine that on the day OSR opened in 1886, a local newspaper headline called it "Mansfield's Greatest Day." The prison was built and opened only after a long campaign by business and political leaders, who wanted the facility constructed in Mansfield.

When it was built, OSR was to serve as an intermediate step between the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster and the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. It was designed by Cleveland architect Levi Scofield, best known for his massive Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument in Cleveland's Public Square.

OSR sign and building

The Ohio State Reformatory has become a regular stop for tourists and others these days. Such was not the case when innmates planned an escape in the spring of 1990.

It was Scofield’s conviction that the young inmates at OSR could have their aspirations lifted by a refined and cultural living environment. Thus, his design for OSR was based on a historic 16th Century castle in France — the Chateau de Chambord — whose turrets and spires echo back to a civilized age of high ideals and chivalry.

A century later, those lofty ambitions were long gone. OSR was a prison for hardened men. The sounds and smells inside the still-active prison had to have been experienced to be believed today.

Salvation truly did not lay within the walls of the Ohio State Reformatory.

ESCAPE PLANNED:  Some inmates -- authorities suspect at least two -- decided to leave OSR on their own terms. Like the famous line from actor Timothy Robbins in the film, the inmates must have considered whether they should "get busy living or get busy dying."

If not for the work of Corrections Officer Roger Ingram, selected in 1989 as the prison's officer of the year, they may well have succeeded.

It happened on the third floor in West Wing 3, a dormitory area that had not been used in months since OSR was no longer the intake center for the northern part of Ohio.

During Ingram's routine security check, he saw a blue sweatshirt hanging on the wall. Curious, he moved it aside -- and found an 8-inch-by-10-inch hole chiseled through the 36-inch wall brick and concrete wall.

Outside the hole, which was in a perimeter prison wall, was freedom. Train tracks were less than 50 feet away. The steel mill was visible through the hole, just across a green field. Highways leading out of the area were a quick jog away.

All that remained in the hole was a bit of cornerstone, which inmates could have quickly popped, when they considered the time was right to make their escape. This was an exterior wall in the prison. There were no fences or razor wire outside the wall -- just freedom.

"It was close," then-Deputy Warden Jerry Wente said at the time. "The cornerstone in the outside wall is all that's left. Then they would have been gone."

Reformatory

The administration building and cell block areas are all that remain from the former Ohio State Reformatory, closed as a prison at the end of 1990.

BUT HOW?: So how did the ingenious inmates get so close to an escape through the three-foot wall? Unlike in the Shawshank movie, the attempt didn't occur from within an inmate's cell -- and it took far more than a rock hammer.

Keep in mind most of the old prison, including this area, was razed after the site was closed (and after the Shawshank movie was made). The state needed space to build the Richland Correctional Institution.

There was a weight room on the second floor of West Wing 3, used by any inmates in the west cell block population area.

First, the inmates (Wente suspected there were at least two, with one keeping watch) pried back an expanded metal wall from a locked door to the stairs and hallway that led to the vacant dormitory area.

They then took a six-foot, flat steel bar that was used to support the wall.

Once inside the hallway, the inmates used a homemade sledgehammer of sorts, the steel bar, and another smaller piece of metal to fashion a hole on an inside wall to gain access to the vacant dorm area.

Once inside the dorm, the inmates walked into the dayroom and began their final hole to freedom.

As they pounded out the hole, likely using the crashing sounds in the weight room below to cover the sound, they removed pieces of brick, rock and chips or mortar. The debris was stuffed inside rolled up mattresses on the beds or in footlockers that still dotted the dormitory floors.

Wente said there were no signs of debris visible anywhere in the dorm. 

The inmates created a 35-foot rope by tying together bedsheets, likely collected from the unused dorm bunks. The rope could have easily been used for the three-story trip to the ground below.

The planned escape was never carried out, snuffed by an alert corrections officer before it came to pass. No inmates were ever charged in the elaborate plan.

Shawshank

A "Shawshank Redemption" movie scene from the prison yard at the former Ohio State Reformatory, starring Morgan Freeman and Timothy Robbins.

Andy Dufresne used to dream of being free and traveling to Zihuatanejo in Mexico, far away from the walls of Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine.

Ironically, just a few feet away from the real hole at OSR lay a book about green meadows and majestic mountains. The cover artwork for the novel could have represented a field of dreams to the inmates.

Truth be told, anywhere would have been better than inside the walls of the Ohio State Reformatory in 1990.

(Editor's note: In April 1990, Carl Hunnell, then 29, was in his fourth month as a reporter at the Mansfield News Journal. He was assigned to cover the planned escape, the first time he ventured inside the walls of the former Ohio State Reformatory. He remembers covering other stories inside OSR before it closed. But he will always remember his first time there.)

Support Our Journalism

Our content is free and always will be - but we rely on your support to sustain it.

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"