Mansfield Reformatory is Hollywood's vision of a prison. Its exterior of rough-hewn rock walls and towers resembles a Romanesque castle or cathedral. Inside, everything is on Goliath scale. There are vast spaces with leprous walls, dangling light fixtures, and sun slanting through empty windows; some nicely restored public rooms (you can host your wedding reception or prom here); and the world's tallest free standing cell block. The terror stink of nearly a century of incarceration still lingers in odd corners: stale food, body odor, urine, dead mice.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Mansfield's history, when compared to other early lockups, is surprisingly tame. Its biggest celebrity convict -- out of 155,000 men over 95 years -- was David "Take This Job and Shove it" Allan Coe. There were no Al Capones at Mansfield Reformatory, no legendary riots, no death chamber.
After it was abandoned in 1991 (and a new reformatory was built right behind it), the history that really matters at the Mansfield Reformatory began. That's when Hollywood discovered a perfect Hollywood prison. Tourists flock to Mansfield today because, well, if you're going to visit a jailhouse, you want one that looks forboding and is famous.
The top draw at Mansfield for years has been The Shawshank Redemption, filmed in 1993. The prison tour winds past many spots familiar to Shawshank fans: the warden's office, the parole room, the chow hall, the Hole. The outside world boarding house room with the "Brooks was here" beam where he hanged himself is also in the Reformatory, although the carved beam is a replica. The gift shop sells the actual books that appeared in Shawshank's prison library.
Displayed on the ground floor are props such as the hole-in-the-wall and sewage pipe used by Andy Dufresne for his Shawshank escape. Both have their openings sealed with plexiglass, although that wasn't always the case. "We had people from a wedding crawl through there once," said operations manager Susan Nirode. "Their dresses were filthy."
Mansfield Reformatory's media history is as important as its real history, which means that every new shoot modification only makes it more historic. Camera mounts and set embellishments from Shawshank have been left in place. Big murals of Stalin and Lenin, painted on the walls when Air Force One was filmed, are carefully preserved (To the shock of some older tour-takers, according to Susan). A jail cell painted gold for the Lil' Wayne video "Go DJ" has been left as is; the electric chair in which he sat is displayed in the Reformatory museum (the Reformatory never had an electric chair when it was a reformatory).
And a new group of media prison-fans has recently arrived at Mansfield: the cable TV ghost hunters. Susan ticked off a long list of shows that have filmed at the prison: Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters Academy, Paranormal Challenge, Most Terrifying Places in America, Scariest Places on Earth, Real Scary Stories. Although no executions took place at Mansfield, hundreds of people did die at the prison, so there are plenty of unhappy apparitions to pursue. And with the peeling paint and patchy lighting, there are plenty of eerie rooms and halls (Ask about the "X" that appears on the floor in one hallway -- fluke of light or warning of doom?).
Susan said that a younger generation of daytime tourists is visiting the Reformatory because they've seen it on ghost shows -- and there's a whole new group of after-hours visitors as well who come for the prison's 16 annual overnight ghost hunts. These brave souls have to sign a waver absolving the prison in case they hurt themselves fleeing shadow beings, or stumbling in the dark with their EVP recorders. And Susan cautions them not to use the toilets in the cells -- problems usually not encountered by daylight tourists, whose nearest brush with prison danger is sitting in the Hole with the door closed.