Connecting state and local government leaders
In a part of the Buckeye State often overlooked by travelers passing through, you can better understand the physical and budgetary footprints for state prisons through the 1994 movie.
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UPPER SANDUSKY, Ohio — When most travelers traverse the Buckeye State from east to west or west to east, they usually opt for the more traveled routes: The Ohio Turnpike via the Cleveland and Toledo areas in the northern tier of the state or Interstate 70 via Columbus and Dayton across the Ohio’s middle section.
Taking U.S. 30 across the state’s north-central tier, you miss the state’s major population centers but hit smaller- to medium-sized cities like Canton, Massillon, Wooster and Mansfield. Although it’s a bit slower, I like going this way because the road is less traveled. The vast majority of the route is an expressway or divided highway and you can check out some interesting municipalities along the way—and get tasty Hungarian pastries in Wooster.
Approaching Upper Sandusky from the east, you’re given options to continue west on U.S. 30 toward Fort Wayne, Indiana, and beyond to Chicago; go south on U.S. 23 to Columbus; or north on U.S. 23 to Toledo.
Me? Instead of bypassing Upper Sandusky, I head into the city of around 6,500 residents, which is the seat of Wyandot County.
Charles Dickens once stayed here during a visit to Ohio in 1842, right before the last Native American tribe in Ohio, the Wyandot, left for a reservation in Kansas.
In the center of town, fans of the 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption” might recognize some brief shots filmed at the Wyandot County Courthouse, where Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, was put on trial and found guilty of his wife’s murder.
The courthouse in Upper Sandusky itself, like so many seats of county government in Ohio, is a stately edifice, built at a time when building an impressive county courthouse was a sign of a prosperous community.
In November 2013, voters in Wyandot County approved a 1 mill, six-year bond issue to fund renovations to the courthouse, originally built in 1899. The $2.25 million work to the historic structure wrapped up in 2015 and as The Blade reported that October, a county commissioner noted that “[o]ne lady said it brought tears to her eyes when the plastic came off” the dome and clock tower.
Civic architecture can still be a point of pride in many communities. The same can apply to historic prison architecture, too.
While the movie was set in Maine, the local “Shawshank Trail” attracts die-hard fans of the movie to this part of Ohio, including Upper Sandusky. But there’s a bit more to see for Shawshank fans 40 miles to the east, on the northern edge of Mansfield.
That’s where the historic Ohio State Reformatory, which stood in for the fictional Shawshank State Prison, is located and is a major local tourist attraction.
The prison was decommissioned in 1990 after housing 155,000 prisoners over its 94 years in service. I visited the prison in 2013 and if you’re ever in the area, I recommend a visit. The Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society oversees the historic site, which is certainly not an easy facility to maintain.
The reformatory, which is home to the world’s largest freestanding steel cellblock, is very much deteriorated with lots of peeling paint and has an overall feeling of dampness when you’re exploring the cellblock areas, shower rooms, solitary confinement cells, hospital wards and other spaces. Overall, it’s a somewhat creepy place with plenty of reports of paranormal activity over the years.
Like some other historic U.S. prisons open to the public like Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the Ohio State Reformatory is important landmark to better understand how prisons and corrections have changed over time and how dreadful prison conditions once were. (That’s not to say modern-day prisons are luxurious, but standards for incarceration have certainly improved over the years though there are plenty of practices, like solitary confinement and overcrowding, that remain under the policy microscope.)
Corrections and prisoner rehabilitation remain major budgetary commitments for state governments and also county-level governments, whose local jails often serve as way stations for prisoners who end up in a state penitentiary. It’s important to understand just how massive public investments in corrections have been in throughout the years and these historic prisons serve as reference points for looking at today’s correctional facilities.
At the Ohio State Reformatory, there’s a good reminder of the budgetary footprint that today’s corrections continue to demand: Next door is the sprawling Richland Correctional Institution, which opened in 1998 and as of May 1, 2016, housed 2,612 inmates. The state prison facility’s fiscal 2015 budget was around $35.4 million with a daily cost per inmate of around $39, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Ohio, like many states, are looking to reduce the fiscal pressure of corrections and looking at alternative options for non-violent, low-level offenders. As the Plain Dealer / Cleveland.com reported last November, Ohio’s prison population was around 50,000 inmates, about 12,000 more than the state’s 27 prisons were designed to accommodate.
"We're going to start slowly. We're going to start strategically," Gary Mohr, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told the Plain Dealer / Cleveland.com.
Next Stop: Zihuatanejo, Mexico ... err ... Coldwater, Michigan
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty.