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by John Futty Reprinted with permission from the Mansfield News Journal December 9, 1990
There was no mistaking Mansfield's excitement on November 4, 1886, when ceremonies marked the laying of the cornerstone for an intermediate state prison that would become know as the Ohio State Reformatory.
A headline in the Richland Shied & Banner proclaimed it as "Mansfield's Greatest Day." The day's events served as the culmination of a long campaign by business and political leaders who wanted the prison built in Mansfield. The campaign began shortly after the end of the Civil War, but it wasn't until 1884 that the state legislature approved the creation of a prison to serve as an intermediate step between the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster and the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. One year later, a board appointed by the governor selected Mansfield as the site.
The city raised $10,000 to purchase 30 acres of land for the prison and the state acquired 150 acres of adjoining land for $20,000. The site had served as one of the city's two Civil War military camps.
The laying of the cornerstone triggered a major celebration, with the city decked out in flags and bunting and a parade stepping off the downtown to the prison site. A crowd estimated at 15,000 turned out for the ceremonies, which featured numerous dignitaries.[Back to top]
Included on the program were former President Rutherford B. Hayes, Sen. John Sherman, Gov. J.B. Foraker and Gen. Roeliff Brinkerhoff, the man who led the prison campaign.
Cleveland architect Levi T. Scofield was hired to design the prison, which was expected to cost $1.3 million. Scofield supposedly modeled the institution after sketches of Old World castles in Germany.
Funding problems caused so many construction delays that
the reformatory wasn't completed enough to accept its first
group of inmates until 1896--10 years after construction began.
The prison officially opened on September 17 of that year when
150 inmates were transferred to the new prison from the Ohio
The transfer drew so much public interest that large crowds turned out, beginning with a throng in Columbus that watched the men, dressed in prison stripes, march from the penitentiary to a train station.
The Columbus Evening Press covered the move and wrote about
the prisoners as if they were celebrities.
The men were in the best of humor and tossed off little jokelets along the route," according to the newspaper. "The 150 men seemed to enjoy the idea of the trip to the new prison. . . . Many of the prisoners had been given cigars by people who lined the route of the march."
A Mansfield newspaper reported that the train was greeted by another large crowd when it stopped in Galion before continuing on to Mansfield. A crowd along the tracks outside the reformatory watched as the prisoners finally were unloaded at the northwest corner of the prison and marched directly to their cells.[Back to top]
The reformatory still was far from finished when it opened. The first inmates were put to work on the prison sewer system and built the 25-foot stone wall that surrounds the 15-acre complex. The east cell block was completed until 1908. Because of its role as an intermediate prison for young, first-time offenders, OSR held few famous inmates during its history. However, a few of OSR's former residents were on to later notoriety, including Henry Baker, one of the men convicted of pulling off the famous Brink's robbery of 1950.
Another OSR inmate later found a more respectable career. Gates Brown of Crestline, who served at the prison from 1958 to 1959 for burglary, went on to play with the Detroit Tigers from 1963 to 1975, earning a reputation as one of baseball's best pinch-hitters.
One athlete already was famous when he entered OSR. Kevin Mack, a star running back for the Cleveland Browns, served one month at the prison in 1989 on drug charges. The darkest day in OSR history was July 21, 1948. Two former OSR inmates kidnapped the prison's farm superintendent, John Niebel, his wife, and 20-year-old daughter from their home on the honor farm and murdered them in a cornfield off Fleming Falls Road.
The killers, Robert Daniels and John West, were trapped two days later a roadblock near Van Wert, where West died in a shoot-out and Daniels was captured. The Niebel murders were part of a two-week crime spree during which the pair killed six people. Daniels confessed to the honor farm killings, claiming they were an act of revenge, and died the following January in the Ohio Penitentiary electric chair.[Back to top]
Two correction officers also have been murdered in the line of duty at OSR. On November 2, 1926, a paroled inmate returned to the prison and shot Urban Wilford, a 72-year-old guard, outside the west gate in an unsuccessful attempt to help a friend escape. The gunman, Philip Orleck, was arrested two months later and died in the Ohio Penitentiary electric chair the following year.
The second victim was Frank Hanger, 48, who died after being beaten with an iron bar during an escape attempt by a dozen prisoners October 2, 1932. Inmates Merrill Chandler and Chester Probaski were found guilty of the guard's murder and died in the electric chair in 1935.
Although OSR was hailed by many as the best prison of its kind when it opened, it drew criticism for overcrowded conditions as early as 1933. A research group of educators and penologists that year called conditions at OSR, "a disgrace," noting that the large number of inmates resulted in "mass rule" and "little or no real rehabilitative values."
Four decades of deterioration later, a nine-member evaluation team studying vocational programs at the Ohio penal institutions recommended razing the reformatory and replacing it with several institutions housing not more than 500 inmates.
The outcry peaked in 1978, when the Counsel for Human Dignity, a coalition of civic and church groups, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the 2,200 inmates at the prison. The suit claimed that the prisoner's Constitutional rights were being violated because they were forced to live in "brutalizing and inhumane conditions."[Back to top]
The lawsuit was resolved in 1983 with the filing of a consent decree in which prison officials agreed to improve conditions while preparing to close the cell blocks by December 31, 1986. The closing date was extended by the court because of delays in the construction of the Mansfield Correctional Institution.
In OSR's final years, the only people who seemed to appreciate the ancient, imposing prison were moviemakers. The architecture lured Hollywood to OSR to film portions of two movies--"Harry and Walter Go to New York" in 1975 and "Tango and Cash" in 1989.
Both films eventually were panned by most critics, but they brought major stars to Mansfield--James Caan, Elliot Gould, Diane Keaton and Michael Caine for "Harry and Walter," and Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell for "Tango and Cash."