Destination: Shawshank of Ohio

Surely I’m not alone in this, but I’ve always felt a special connection with the 1994 film (and currently the top-rated film on the Internet Movie Database) The Shawshank Redemption. In my formative years, you see, I discovered Stephen King and devoured his oeuvre at the time. And aside from the magnum opuses of It and The Stand, probably my favorite King work was a novella found in the Different Seasons collection, called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” It was a tightly-plotted and beautifully-written piece of work, utterly gripping, and with a timeless story that young me found very appealing. Not that I could much relate to the prison experience, but I’ve always had a fondness for stories of justice and redemption, and this one fit that bill very nicely.

So in 1994, when I heard that the novella was being made into a film, I was excited. When I learned it would hit theaters in limited release just before my birthday, I was especially pleased. And when I hurried to the theater to see the film… ah, words fail. It was such a pitch-perfect rendition of the novella, with clear affection and reverence for the original story. There were some subtle changes, like multiple wardens in the novella being combined into the one villain represented by Warden Norton—but overall it was a faithful adaptation, and one I still regard as that rare instance of an adaptation maybe even outshining the source material. The casting, obviously, was superb. And the prison setting was stunning, evocative, and with so much of its own personality that it was practically a character unto itself.

In those dark days before the blossoming of the Internet, of course, I had no idea that a real prison stood in for the novella’s Shawshank. But as the Internet came of age, and The Shawshank Redemption—which had been no great shakes in its box-office release—hit cable television and home video and steadily developed an impressive and devoted cult following, many of those details were revealed, and the Shawshank prison found itself acquiring a bit of its own cult status and devoted following. If anything, that status and following has grown as the years go by.

Downtown Mansfield, Ohio

Welcome to Mansfield, Ohio, a small city along Interstate 71, about midway between Cleveland and Columbus. It’s presently home to the Richland Correctional Institution, but before that (and right next door) there was the old Ohio State Reformatory (OSR), built between 1886 and 1910 and active until 1990. But that was just its first lifetime.

Already slated for demolition at the time, the prison’s second life began in earnest in 1994, when director Frank Darabont and his crew came to town—the vast majority of The Shawshank Redemption was filmed in the area of Mansfield and surrounding towns. Many of these locations have reveled in their connection to the film, especially as its regard and popularity increased over the years, and now the area boasts what it calls the Shawshank Trail: a driving and walking tour of spots making an appearance in the film. But the star of the show is still the old Reformatory: Shawshank herself.

In the spring of 2015, I found myself with the opportunity to visit the Mansfield area for a day. I had a business trip to Detroit, just a couple hours’ drive from Mansfield. So I flew into Columbus and made the drive up to Mansfield to spend a few hours at Shawshank.

Approaching Shawshank

Driving up to the prison, and especially under cloudy steel-grey skies, I couldn’t help but think of the film’s own introduction of the place: an aerial shot taking us up the driveway to the iconic central section of the prison building, with that gorgeous Victorian Gothic architecture. I parked the rental car and strolled to the entrance, already in awe.

I paid my way in at the gift shop, and set off for a self-guided exploration. I love self-guided tours, since they allow me to explore at my leisure, lingering over spots that others might dismiss, and finding my way into places off the beaten path (though not off-limits, I hasten to add). There is a suggested path through the place, and some signage to indicate what you’re looking at, but the available audio wand is the best way to get more information about the place as you go through. Audio wand in hand, I set off.

There was some evident work being done around the prison on my visit—near the gift shop a museum was taking shape, with artifacts from the prison’s active days, and apparently plans for a display related to the Shawshank filming as well. The area of the Warden’s Office was also not open due to work being done up there, but more on that later.

Stepping into a movie

Leaving the gift shop, I found myself stepping directly into the celluloid frames of the film.
That stairway, that floor design—even without the Warden Norton cutout figure, I’d have known exactly where I was. This Shawshank fan was in heaven already.

Upwards and onwards
Aged beauty

Up those gorgeous stairs, and the true character of this part of the prison made itself known. Walls covered with flaking, peeling paint and wallpaper, juxtaposed with gorgeous woodwork and trim and that unmistakable floor. The ravages of age aside, it was easy to imagine this place in its glory. Despite being a prison, a place to house the worst dregs of civil society, there was beauty here, and here beauty remains, if hidden.

Corridors and ghosts

Wood-floored corridors led away from the main hall. OSR has long been a destination for ghost hunters, an aspect emphasized by some of the audio tour’s narration. I must admit to not being a big one for that sort of thing—but even so, walking these spooky halls, it was certainly not difficult to imagine that I wasn’t walking alone.

At the end of one corridor I found the X. This is an amazing phenomenon: the architecture of the place is such that the sunlight streaming into the windows and through the doors creates a perfectly-centered X of light in this spot. I imagined this was a favorite place of the film’s cast and crew, since right around the corner was a major filming location from the film.

The Brewer--Brooks Was Here

You might recognize this as the halfway-house room from the film, occupied first by old-timer Brooks Hatlen (portrayed exquisitely by James Whitmore, may he rest in peace) and later by Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) himself. The exterior of that location was a building in downtown Mansfield (about which more later), but the room itself was built here in the prison. Note the woodwork across the ceiling, with the infamous ‘Brooks Was Here’ scratched in—this is not the original from the film, but a recreation. I was told the original was recently obtained, however, and will go on display in the museum that was under development downstairs.

Real-life chapel, movie dining room
Cellblocks and shadows

Passing through the prison’s capacious and high-ceilinged chapel, which found use in the film as the dining hall, I entered the cellblocks. These were not used in the film—for practical filming considerations (lighting, the need to shoot cells from various angles, etc.) as well as necessities of plot (no spoilers here!), it was decided to construct the film’s cellblock in a nearby warehouse instead. So at this point we’re out of the Shawshank world, but instead into a fascinating historical one.

Quite a cage

This remains, after all, the largest free-standing iron cellblock in the world. And photographically speaking, all the lines and shadows of jails and prisons make for some really neat shooting. I could (and did) wander in here for quite some time.

Long way down

Eventually I came across this shower room, which is indeed the one used in the film. The overhead shower fixtures were installed by the film crew, and remain.

New fish

The bullpen from the film, where Andy Dufresne and the other “new fish” lined up for their introduction to the warden. Note the yellow line painted on the floor, which supposedly remains from filming.

The bullpen was also the current home of some random movie artifacts, like the “tunnel” piece used for filming the revelation of Andy’s escape in the film, as well as the sewage pipe he crawled through. Oops, I said no spoilers, didn’t I? Look, the film is over 20 years old now, I think we’re past the statute of limitations on spoilers anyway, right?

Back to the central part of the prison, I was seeking the Warden’s Office from the film and not finding it. What I found instead was a friendly staff member, so I asked him to point me in the right direction. He told me the office was currently off of the tour due to renovation work—but he’d be happy to walk me up there for a look around. I quickly agreed and off we went.

Up for rejection next week

First we came across the hearing room, site of Red’s multiple visits with the Parole Board throughout the film. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the photograph of young Red on his parole forms is actually a photo of Morgan Freeman’s son, who also appears in the film during the “fresh fish” scene as Andy and the new arrivals get off the prison bus.

Warden Norton's office
His Judgement Cometh

And at last, the Warden’s Office, complete with the wall safe from the film (or so I believe). No sign of the “His Judgement Cometh” sampler, though. I was told the other furniture isn’t from the film, though the Plexiglas windowpane is—it was installed by the crew to replace the one broken in the film.

We now consider the matter closed. Please stop sending us letters.

I got another treat as well, as the staffer showed me around a corner to a huge pile of books—ostensibly many from Andy’s prison library and/or the boxes of books delivered to him at one point in the film. Neat!

Shawshank Oak

Outside the prison I found a large section of oak tree—this is the part that split off of the so-called Shawshank Oak during a severe storm a few years ago.

From the prison I headed into downtown Mansfield, where I visited the bench where Brooks would feed pigeons (though I must note that the bench is not the original, and was also moved at some point to make room for a new gazebo in the park).

Bissman Building, 1886

Nearby I visited the Bissman Building, used in the film as the exterior of the Brewer halfway house, home to Brooks and later Red (though as mentioned, the interior room was built and filmed inside the prison). I didn’t go inside, but I understand this is another hot spot for ghost hunters since the building has been around so long.

Leaving Mansfield for nearby Lucas, I stopped at Malabar Farm State Park. The Pugh Cabin here served as the home of Glenn Quentin in the film, the tennis pro with whom Andy’s wife was having an affair, and the site of their murder. The first scenes of the film, with Andy in the car, were shot on this spot.

On top of Mt. Jeez

The park itself was lovely. A drive up to the top of the interestingly-named Mt. Jeez provided a gorgeous panorama of the surrounding area.

Red-winged blackbird

And some wildlife!

RIP Shawshank Oak

Malabar Farm is–well, was–also home to the Shawshank Oak, the tree where Andy hid the elements of his secret identity (spoilers again!) and which he directed Red to visit if he ever got out of Shawshank. Alas, a storm a few years ago split the tree in half (the fallen portion rests outside the prison, as you saw above), and in July of 2016, another storm finally finished the job and felled what remained of the tree. RIP, Shawshank Oak.

I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.

And finally, on Ohio Route 95 near Bellville, I retraced Red’s bus journey out of town and on towards Fort Hancock, Texas—and eventually Zihuatenejo, Mexico. Interestingly (to me, anyway) the film originally ended with Red on the bus out of town—the scene on the Mexican beach (actually filmed on St. Croix in the Caribbean) was added afterwards, to provide that last bit of closure and emotional satisfaction.

Having been a fan of the Shawshank film since its release, and Stephen King’s novella for even longer, it was simply an amazing experience for me to visit the prison and other places where the film was shot. Shawshank fever shows no signs of slowing down, and from what I saw, the prison is making some welcome fixes and additions to keep luring in the film’s fervent fan-base. If you’re a fan of the film and find yourself in the area, I definitely recommend a visit—I’ll be planning a return visit myself!

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