The Ohio State Reformatory: The Most Haunted Prison In America?

Marcus Lowth
Published Date
February 11, 2024
Estimated Reading Time
9 min read
Posted in
Supernatural, Ghosts & Hauntings

While many people might recognize the Ohio State Reformatory (once known as the Mansfield Reformatory) in Mansfield, Ohio as the location for the film The Shawshank Redemption, it is also widely regarded as one of the most haunted prisons in the state, if not all of the United States.

Indeed, as well it might, all manner of paranormal incidents have been witnessed here, ranging from the sound of footsteps approaching a person, to at least one paranormal researcher even being physically struck and wounded during one altercation with an entity from the other side.

The fact is, this building has seen multiple brutal acts over the years, with a reputation for it being one of the worst prisons in the United States in terms of conditions and how prisoners were treated. And the fact is, many of these prisoners, or at least their spirits, remain in the building today. Regular ghost tours operate in the old prison, and it is from these that many of the unnerving encounters come from.

Before we examine some of those, however, we will turn our attention to the history of the Ohio State Reformatory, and why it likely became one of the most haunted buildings in America.

A Brutal Prison That Witnessed Many Horrors

When the facility was first built at the end of the nineteenth century it was intended to be an Intermediate Penitentiary where young men between 16 and 30 would be placed with a focus on rehabilitation back into society. [1] Generally speaking, these were non-violent criminals and low-threat offenders, and for a time, this system worked very well.

However, as the twentieth century unfolded, and with prison systems around the country not just in Ohio beginning to grow, the prisons soon began taking in career criminals as well as murderers and rapists. And perhaps not surprisingly, with this intake of some of society’s worst elements, the prison became a violent often deadly place.

People were often thrown over the railings of the sixth-floor cell blocks to settle scores, while others would find themselves victims of deadly stabbings in the shower blocks.

During the 1960s, conditions had become so bad that the state stopped funding and it ultimately became a full maximum security facility. Whether coincidence or not, the conditions of the prison continued to nose-dive. In fact, they were so bad that several of the prisoners eventually sued the state of Ohio, a case they won. Their victory resulted in the prison being closed indefinitely, and it has stood abandoned since 1990.

The building was eventually purchased by a group of people who came together to preserve the building itself as a historical one, and it is maintained today by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society. It was opened to the public shortly after, and with the many visitors came increased reports of shadowy figures and strange noises. As paranormal researchers and investigators began to descend on the facility, organized ghost tours began to take place.

Activity All Around The Building

While we will explore some of the more intriguing encounters from the Mansfield Reformatory shortly, it is perhaps worth our time to quickly look at the typical activity witnessed in the building. [2] For example, in the east wing on the first floor is said to see regular activity – almost on a nightly basis. And this ranges from strange sounds and noises to the appearance of shadowy figures. The admin center on the third floor is very similar, with many people who have spent time there noting the sound of footsteps, strange voices, and the constant feeling that they are being watched and are not alone.

The chapel area and the sub-basement are also areas that see regular paranormal activity, with the latter even having bizarre happenings taking place when the prison was still operational, so much so, that many of the prison employees avoided going down there. The admin basement has similar activity, although it is claimed that the spirit in this particular room appeared to be of a more benevolent nature.

The West Attic is also very active in terms of paranormal incidents and strange noises from nowhere, and regular incidents have been recorded here. Without a doubt, though, the cell blocks themselves are home to some of the most unnerving and disturbing encounters, perhaps not least as many murders and suicides have taken place in these cells over the years. One particularly grim killing took place during an episode of overcrowding at the facility when the staff were forced to place two death-row prisoners in the same cell. The following morning guards arrived at the cell to find only one of the prisoners was inside. However, when they searched the cell, they found the missing prisoner, dead, with his body contorted out of shape from being stuffed under the bunk.

Much can be said for the solitary confinement area – otherwise known as The Hole – where similar anguish would have been felt by the prisoners should they have found themselves in there for any prolonged amount of time. And as we might expect, many such prisoners would take their own lives here. Not only have people reported a feeling of anxiousness running through them in this part of the prison, but some people have reported seeing dark figures with glowing red eyes.

The Research Files Of Jeff Belanger

In the book The World’s Most Haunted Places: From The Secret Files Of, Jeff Belanger relays some of the most intriguing sightings and encounters from inside this haunting facility. One of those encounters featured Ouija Board historian, Bob Murch, who was with Belanger while leading a tour. On this particular evening, Murch was on the third floor of the west wing waiting for the next tour guides. When Belanger arrived with the group, he found his friend “practically vibrating with excitement and disbelief”.

Murch told Belanger that he and Dave Schrader from Darkness Radio who was with him, had been attempting to scare Belanger and the group he was with when they realized they were directly above them (something Belanger didn’t fall for). However, as they were doing so they suddenly heard a door slam shut behind them. Realizing they were the only ones on the floor, they quickly knew something strange was taking place.

Then, things got even stranger when they heard footsteps coming out of the room, they had been standing in only moments earlier. The footsteps passed directly in front of the two men, with both being able to sense some kind of presence walking by. Murch would go on to state that “it was freakier because there was someone else with me”, adding that had he been alone, he would likely have convinced himself that his mind was playing tricks on him.

Another encounter Belanger relayed was when he was in the chapel building, with the one-time Tuberculosis Ward sitting directly above them. He was there with a group of six people. They positioned themselves in the middle of the room and then became as silent as possible, listening for any out-of-place sound they could hear. All that greeted them was silence – that is until the creek of a floorboard from the corner of the room rang out. Each of the group instinctively turned their attention to the corner of the room, and to their amazement, could see a “shadow move by a nearby window”.

The Truly Disturbing Encounters Of Mike Middleton

In the same book, Belanger tells of the encounters of Mike Middletown, who leads some of the ghost tours in the former prison, a position that allows him access to the haunted building more so than most. What Middleton is really keen to do, is capture evidence of Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) inside the prison. For the vast majority of the time, although he has experienced many strange incidents in the building, he has rarely felt threatened or scared, except on two particular occasions.

One of those occasions unfolded late one afternoon while Middleton was walking through the prison. He was the only one in the building and he headed to what was the confinement area. As he was approaching the main door, a sudden thought appeared in his mind, only it was more like a voice or a thought that had been placed in his mind. It told him “Don’t go in there”. He couldn’t understand where this thought came from, after all, he had been in this part of the prison alone many times previously. He paused for a moment, before dismissing the thought and entering the confinement area.

No daylight penetrated this part of the building, and he had no flashlight with him, he was soon in complete blackness. Within moments he heard the distinct sounds of heavy boot steps approaching him from behind. He continued on, the boot steps continuing the follow him as he went. He turned around but all he could see was black.

He set off walking once more, the boot steps continuing to approach. However, a moment later, the steps turned into a run. Whatever was behind him, it was speeding up. The closer they got, Middleton could hear the sound of heavy breathing – a sound he recalled as “growling”.

At this stage, Middleton began to feel real fear. He finally stopped, turned around, and found himself calling out, asking if anyone was there. He then felt a “presence right in my face” like something was “right on top of me”. He felt immediately threatened, something he had never experienced before. Then, he had a mental flash in his mind of whom he presumed the entity was, an extremely tall, menacing-looking man. Once more, Middleton blurted out that he wasn’t afraid of this presence, something which he later admitted was a complete lie. The presence appeared to remain where it was for a moment, and then Middleton could sense that whatever it was, it had seemingly disappeared – for now.

An even more bizarre twist would come when Middleton later examined his EVP recording equipment. After he had stated that he wasn’t afraid of the presence in the room, a clear voice was audibly saying the word “outstanding”. And what’s more, it was said in a “drawn-out and sinister” way.

Another unnerving encounter unfolded several years later in 2010. On this occasion, he was leading a ghost tour through the building. When he was in the confinement area, he purposely left his EVP recorder in one of the cells on record. He went to retrieve it at the end of the tour, somewhere around 11:30 pm.

However, as he walked into the cell he suddenly felt a sharp, thumping pain on his lip, as if someone had punched him in the face. When he put his hand to his lip and pulled it away again, he realized it was bleeding. Something had physically struck him and drawn blood.

Despite these two harrowing incidents, Middleton continues to investigate the former prison and is arguably one of the most knowledgeable of the events that have taken place there.

Many Encounters From Ghost Walks And Tours

Many encounters have been documented by those who have taken part in ghost walks in the prison. [3] For example, one visitor – Carrie – who visited the prison in 2006 claimed that she had a bizarre “experience in the cell marked with an X”. She elaborated that while in the cell they heard a strange sound outside, which caused their guide to go suddenly silent. The sound was that of someone running, which then caused the guide to shout out that there was no running allowed. However, when she realized that all of their group were present, she suddenly appeared “scared and soaked with sweat”. The footsteps ran off into the distance before a cell door slammed shut.

An even stranger encounter is that of Gina, who claimed that her tour group was walking down the metal stairs from the tower, with Gina and her friend at the back. As Gina was walking down, holding on tight to the handrail, she felt someone suddenly slap her on the back. The slap was so hard that it caused her to fall forward slightly, having to bring herself to her knee for balance. When she looked around to confront who had pushed her, she was shocked to discover there was no one there.

Another unsettling, if intriguing, account comes from Randy, who claimed that while in one of the cells managed to record the sounds of “tapping on the walls”. To begin with, Randy and a friend who was on the tour with him, thought the tapping was some kind of Morse Code. However, they soon dismissed this idea, although they still believed the tapping sounds were some kind of communication attempt. They theorized that it was most likely once a code developed by prisoners themselves in order to communicate between themselves without the guards’ knowledge.

It perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that one of the most unsettling encounters occurred in The Hole of the prison. The account in question occurred in 2007 when Michelle and a friend – who both worked as tour guides at the site – had been assigned to work this particular evening in the former solitary confinement area. Each girl was at opposite ends of The Hole when they suddenly heard “shuffling around in the hallway”. They believed their tour group had arrived and they planned to jump out and scare them. However, when they did so, they were more than shocked to discover there was no one there at all, just an empty hallway. Needless to say, both girls were anxious to get their shifts over with that evening.

A Place Awash With Memories Of The Past

As we can see then, the Mansfield Reformatory is indeed one of the most paranormally-active buildings in the United States and is home to multiple different spirits. Indeed, in terms of paranormal research, it is undoubtedly one of the most important locations in the United States.

Why is this particular building more haunted than others? Is it something to do with the land itself? Or is it more likely to be the many horrors the walls have witnessed over the decades, the negative energy of which is seemingly now intertwined within the very structure? Further research will not only shine a light on the happenings at Ohio State Reformatory but on the mysteries of the paranormal as a whole.

Those who have spent any amount of time in this abandoned building will agree that it remains alive with the suggestions and whispers of previous years and that these otherworldly entities continue to make their presence very much known.

You can see more about this haunted prison in the video below.


1 This Former Ohio Prison Is Thought To Be One Of The Most Haunted Places On Earth, Only In Your State
2 8 Most Haunted Sites at the Reformatory, The Ohio State Reformatory
3 What Happens To Visitors, Ghost Walks

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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