Saturday, May 10, 2014

Live free or die

Behold the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, which housed prisoners from 1896 through 1990. Click on any photo to enlarge.

Mansfield Reformatory

Mansfield Reformatory

The first thing you notice is the care Levi Scofield, who also designed the Cuyahoga County Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, put into designing a place for society's most undesirable cast aways. The ornate exterior of the building, however, does not prepare you for what lay deep inside.

I was first met with the offices and formal meeting areas, which are opulent and echo another time. Easy enough.

Mansfield Reformatory

Mansfield Reformatory

The strangest things about the prison are subtle. This corridor leads to the cell blocks and other prison facilities. And while you can barely make it out in the photo, the happenstance of light through four windows in adjacent rooms forms a perfect X on the floor in front of this door.

The "X," Mansfield Reformatory

Everyone is quick to note that the Reformatory's massive all-steel East Cell Block, with its six tiers, is the largest free-standing such structure in the world.

Words, words, words.

You have to see this thing and walk within it to understand the implications of incarceration.

East Cell Block, Mansfield Reformatory

Things really went south for me after I stepped out of that stairway and began walking along one of the exterior corridors of the East Block.

The next photo does not convey the length of that walkway, which truly made my jaw drop. As I moved along it, my stomach tightened into a ball and the vague feeling of panic bloomed. Imagine the sounds and smells inside this place when it was packed solid with male human flesh, the sex and emanations.

Everything here is naked. The only thing that might have remained private within these five-by-seven-foot cages is the truth behind the twisted crimes that put men inside them.

Exterior corridor, East Cell Block, Mansfield Reformatory

I could barely bring myself to walk into the cells. It felt like stepping through some terrible plenum. Each time I tried, I gagged against bile welling in the back of my throat and had to step out immediately. That is not an exaggeration; my physical reaction was that strong and I was completely surprised by it. The cells in solitary confinement overwhelmed me so much, I couldn't even bring myself to take photos.

Inmate cell, East Block, Mansfield Reformatory

 Again, these next photos do not begin to capture the power of this massive human cage.

East Cell Block, Mansfield Reformatory

East Cell Block, Mansfield Reformatory

The guard tower is situated on the uppermost level between the East and West Cell Blocks. How strange and polite it is, with its orderly marble floor and Romanesque pillars.

Guard tower, Mansfield Reformatory

The West Block feels completely different from the East Block, probably due to the way the cement portions of the structure make the cells look more like dwellings than cages. On one of the touch screen info vids available throughout the prison, a former inmate talked about the endless clamoring and yelling within the East Block. Unable to sleep there, he requested a transfer to the West Block, which was all but silent.

The absence of noise drove him crazy. He opted to go back to the East Block.

West Cell Block, Mansfield Reformatory

Last pic, a pan of the chapel:

Inmate Chapel, Mansfield Reformatory

While a few errant pews are obvious enough, what you cannot see is the odd draft you pass through at the entrance of this room. There were several such mysterious drafts throughout the prison. They were the strangest thing, coming from impossible dark corners. They would carress my face and gently lift my hair into flying tendrils.

Call it a whisper, we are human beings.

* * *


Anonymous said...

Well done.


Anonymous said...

RJ's not ALways wrong.

Erin O'Brien said...

The place was so overwhelming, I didn't think about it while I was there, but there were no doubt innocent men among the 155,000 incarcerated here--utterly chilling.

Anonymous said...

In the winter of '87-'88 I was between gigs and worked for about 6 weeks at an amusement park in Florida. It was around Bowl-game season and the band from Mansfield was there. I told them I was going to Ohio soon to visit my Dad, who had lived in Mansfield for almost twenty the Infirmery or Refractory or some such, and was it a nice place? They stayed away from the games area for a bit

Today (5/13) is the actual anniversary of the MOVE disaster. There was a fine contemporaneous doc on Frontline called "The Bombing of West Philly" which is I believe still available online.


mike shupp said...

Some of my earliest memories ... I would have been about 4 at the time, back about 1959, living in the countryside outside of Pavonia in Richland County ... waving in the morning on summer days to trucks full of prison inmates headed out to work the fields, and waving again in the afternoon when they drove past again. It used to please me immensely when the men waved back.

DogsDontPurr said...

Many years ago, I had to serve 3 days at a minimum security facility for a DUI.

Ironically, this was the place that my grandmother had worked most of her life. Only, way back then, it had been a mental institution.

When I was a child, my dad would pick me up after school, then we would head over to the institution to pick up my grandma.

I didn't know what that was all about way back then, but my grandma would tell us stories as I got older.

You can imagine my feelings as the prison bus pulled up to the facility and dropped me and the other inmates off at our home for the weekend....a place I knew all too well. The irony!

(My family does not know that this ever happened. This was a huge event of shame for me.)

But after living in this jail like environment, even though it was more like boarding school than prison....I came away with a feeling of great sadness.

Most of the women there were in for years at a time, most of them had been there repeatedly. It was mostly for drug and prostitution. These women had no hope. No life. They only knew one way of living.

I cannot begin to convey the sadness I felt there.

But it seems you understand, having felt the ghosts of the prison you visited.

Prison doesn't help most of the people who end up there. I could ramble on about that. But I have a feeling you know.

Your post tugs at my heart.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thank you all for these evocative comments. MR, you make me smile. Mike, you imbue me with a haunting nostalgia. DDP, you reach right into my heart.

Anonymous said...

Great comments.

Tennessee recently passed legislation that mandates imprisonment for pregnant women found to be using drugs over the objections of the medical community who asserted what they really need is treatment. I suspect CCA(CXW-NYSE $32.44)is already drafting the plans for their maternity ward.

If shame would modify human behavior there'd be no bad behavior. As a local Methodist minister gone Sufi told me one day "Blame the Puritans."


Anonymous said...

Yeah, RJ.

CCA lobbying is one of the reasons some states have made little or no headway in efforts to rationalize and humanize sentencing of first-time small-time drug offenders.

That one citizen can in essence lobby to keep another citizen in jail so that citizen #1 can make more money is beyond sleazy-it's turn-over-the-big-rock-and-watch-the-squirming-vermin sleazy.

Erin O'Brien said...

When does it end? When does all of it end?