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July 4, 2020

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Tales of a haunted prison at Ada Public Library

By Amy Eddings

Imagine spending the night in a pitch-black, abandoned, 119-year-old prison, one with a reputation for being haunted. Now imagine doing this willingly, and paying good money for the opportunity, too. 


That’s what plenty of sane people do at the Ohio State Reformatory, the huge, castle-like structure in Mansfield that famously lent its brooding, forbidding presence to the hit 1994 movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. 

A volunteer with the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society described these overnight “ghost hunts,” and the paranormal activity some claim to have encountered there, during a talk at the Ada Public Library. 

“I’m not pushing the existence of the paranormal on you,” Tom Lane told the seven people seated before him.  He said the preservation society launched the ghost hunting tours in 1998 to raise money to preserve the former prison.  Opened in 1896 for the rehabilitation of young, first-time offenders, the Reformatory later housed more dangerous men, convicted felons who were transferred there after a deadly fire in 1930 ruined the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. 

It was ordered closed in 1990 following a class-action suit by inmates who petitioned for more modern accommodations.  It remained abandoned and unprotected for years.  Lane said prison officials “didn’t bother to lock up” when they left.  The Ohio State Reformatory was left wide open.

“People came and went,” said Lane.  “Some guys said they used to bring their bikes and mopeds into the prison during the winter and they’d ride up and down the cell blocks."

Lane said that while the Preservation Society’s ghost tours were a public relations invention, the claims that the prison was haunted were not.  “We have some inmates and guards reporting paranormal activity up to the 1930s,”  Lane said. In the 1970s, he said, one inmate housed on the third tier of the east cell block was so bothered by “something in his cell” that he requested a transfer to solitary confinement to get away from it.

Those “somethings” have included shadow people, shadow masses, apparitions, audible voices, footsteps, footprints, the sound of doors opening and closing, strange mists and equipment malfunctions.  (Let the record show that this reporter could not get her laptop to work during the presentation.  Moments after Lane’s talk finished, it booted up normally.  Coincidence?)

Lane had ghost pictures. Several showed dark black shadows in vaguely human-like shapes.  “This one right here,” he said, pointing to a black blob, “looks like a man leaning up against a wall with one foot up on the wall behind him.” (Let the record show that this reporter didn’t see this at all.)

Another, taken in the prison’s solitary confinement area, was a bit more persuasive.  Visible in a shimmery mass in the upper right hand corner of the shot was an outline of a shoulder, the two straps and scooped neckline of a sleeveless T-shirt and a man’s bowed head.

“That’s what they would’ve worn in solitary,” said Lane.

Another photograph, taken of a model during a photo shoot in the prison, clearly shows a figure dressed in a reformatory smock and T-shirt behind her.  “The photographer said there was no one behind the girl when he was shooting, and the model didn’t sense anybody behind her,” said Lane.

(Let the record show that this reporter was totally creeped out.)

Lane — a sober, articulate man who is a sports massage therapist in Lima when he’s not doing (volunteer) time in prison — said he’s had a couple of sightings.  He said it happened a few  years ago, during a ghost hunt.  It was 3 a.m., and he saw a shape made of thick, black mist, “like cigar smoke,” as he was heading down a flight of stairs.  He did a double take.  It was still there.

“Inside I’m thinking, ’That’s really cool,’” he said, of seeing a ghost.

Currently, the Ohio State Reformatory is open for Halloween-themed “haunted prison experience.”  They end Nov. 1. “Christmas at the Reformatory” tours, in which the dining hall is decorated for Christmas, run from Nov. 29 through Dec 20.  The ghost hunts and ghost walks,  and the historic tours, operate from February to August.  For more information, go to the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society’s website, mrps.org. 

There will be more talk of the paranormal at the Ada Public Library on Halloween, Oct. 31 at 11 a.m., with a talk by Ohio Researchers of Banded Spirts.

A mysterious figure looms behind a model during a photo shoot at the Ohio State Reformatory. Photo from the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society.

A silvery apparition in the solitary confinement area of the prison. Photo from the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society.

A dark mass is said to be present among the shadows on the wall of cells to the left. Photo from the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society.