Getting the Entire Shawshank Redemption EXPerience

This post contains spoilers about The Shawshank Redemption. All photos by me.

My mom isn’t like most moms. She loves horror movies, and her favorite movie is The Exorcist. She was in the Army in the 70s, had kids in her mid-to-late 30s, and jumped back into the workforce a widow and 20-year stay-at-home mom. So while a trip to Mansfield, Ohio to visit the Ohio State Reformatory where The Shawshank Redemption and scenes from Air Force One were filmed might seem like a strange Mother’s Day trip to some, it wasn’t to my family.

On Sunday, May 10, my mom, sister, husband, and I made the two-hour drive east from Fort Wayne, Indiana to take the Hollywood tour of the Ohio State Reformatory. We saw most of the major scene locations from Shawshank, including Warden Norton’s office, solitary confinement, the cell blocks the movie sets were based on, the halfway house apartment Brooks and Red stay in, and the two tunnels Andy crawled through to freedom. You can see many of the pictures I took below.

Now would probably be a good time to share that The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite movie of all time. I don’t know exactly when or how that happened, but I was in high school when I came to the realization that it’s my favorite movie. I couldn’t tell you how old I was the first time I saw the movie. Probably far younger than I should have been. I just know I’ve always known the movie. I’ve always seen its scenes in my head, always recalled powerful lines. It’s just always been a part of my life, and I’ve always loved it.

My mom and sister really like the movie, too, which is why the only surprising thing about our Mother’s Day trip was that it took us until just this year to go visit the Ohio State Reformatory. But I’m so glad we did. It was an incredible experience, and I’m so happy to have seen so many of the locations where some of (in my opinion) the most powerful and incredible scenes in cinema history occurred.

But I couldn’t just talk about my trip alone with this blog post. I watched Shawshank back in February and wanted to write about it then, but when I knew we were planning a trip to the prison, I wanted to hold off on writing about the movie so I could talk about my whole Shawshank experience. So while it’s been several weeks in the making, I’ve finally rewatched Shawshank after visiting Shawshank, and below are some thoughts I had while watching:

Looking up at the Warden’s office (middle set of windows).

When we pulled up to the Ohio State Reformatory on May 10, I knew we were at Shawshank Prison, but I only knew it in my gut. In looking at it, it didn’t really look like Shawshank when we pulled up, even though I knew it was. In rewatching the movie, I realize I’ve seen it so many times, I’ve just never given much thought to what the prison looks like on the outside. When the prisoners are in the yard and they make their way to “greet” the bus of prisoners Andy’s on, the camera flies over the prison to convey its size and scope. This establishing shot moves over the main prison building to focus on the prisoners in the yard. I guess I never really looked at the prison building before, or truly paid much mind of the flyover. Now having visited and rewatching the movie, it’s even clearer that the Ohio State Reformatory is Shawshank Prison.

IMG_1306Seeing the halfway house room where Brooks commits suicide and Red stays when he gets out of Shawshank was probably the most surprising and exhilarating stop during the tour. I assumed that room was located in an apartment building somewhere in Mansfield. So when I went up a flight of stairs from the Warden’s office and rounded a corner into Brooks’s bedroom, I swear I almost cried. I was so surprised that I was just standing there in that room, with the beam above me reading “Brooks was here – so was Red” carved into it. I truly was at a loss for words. The saddest and one of the happiest scenes in the movie took place in that very room. And I got to stand there.

Outside of the warden’s office. Note the missing glass in the door.

Twenty-one years has taken its toll on the Ohio State Reformatory. In rewatching the movie, all the offices—and even the cells—are much cleaner than they were in the actual building today. For instance, in the scene where Andy’s going through the books and records the State delivered to get him to stop writing letters, the floor is nice and mopped, the wood is stained and clean. It does not look like that now. It’s a bit dirty and dusty, and could use a little TLC. Thankfully, the money we spent on the tours and our souvenirs go to help clean up the building and renovate it so it can continue to be enjoyed into the future. (Also, they really did break the glass out of the door’s window to get Andy to stop playing the record. And then Hollywood just didn’t replace it.)

Part of he Ohio State Reformatory's cell block--the largest cell block in the US.
Part of he Ohio State Reformatory’s cell block–the largest cell block in the US.

I notice new things every time I watch Shawshank. You’d think after watching it probably a hundred times I’d know and see everything there is to know and see about the movie, but that’s definitely not the case. For instance, on this rewatch, I noticed a lot more things the prisoners call out during the “fresh fish” scene when Andy first arrives to Shawshank. I also noticed for the first time the gradual transition from the prisoners wearing striped shirts to blue denim shirts. It doesn’t happen all at once; they’re slowly replaced over the span of a few scenes until all the prisoners are wearing new shirts. The new shirts also start getting lighter as the movie progresses from that point as they get more worn.

Sometimes when experiencing a story, I put things together and remember why I was an English major. In the cafeteria when Tommy asks why Andy’s in prison and Andy tells him, “Everyone’s innocent in here. Didn’t you know that?” the symmetry from Andy’s first months to Tommy’s is both wonderful and tragic. It shows Andy is the vet, the “old boy,” in the system now. He knows the routine, knows Shawshank, and will likely be there for life. But what it also signifies is Andy’s actual innocence, Tommy’s role in bringing that innocence to light, and the tragic part he plays in Andy’s escape to freedom.

The hole in the wall.

To continue with the theme of connections, Red tells Andy that getting out of Shawshank and going to Mexico are just “shitty pipe dreams.” “Shitty pipes” are exactly right—Andy has to crawl through a 500-yard-long pipe of “shit-smelling foulness” to freedom so he can make it to Mexico.

And speaking of pipes, I looked down/through both the sewage pipe and the hole in the wall! It still looks just like it did in the movie: kind of egg-shaped with metal and brick bits sticking out of it. I also felt the rough sides, which if you’re like me, you always wondered what they felt like. They feel just like you’ve always imagined.

Warden Norton's desk.
Warden Norton’s desk.

Seeing Warden Norton’s office was a little unsettling, to be entirely honest. Unlike walking into the halfway house room where Brooks died and feeling sadness and joy, I walked into the Warden’s office and thought, “This is where that bastard put a bullet in his brain.” But then I looked ahead and saw the safe in the wall and the joy resurfaced immediately. When that bastard does kill himself, though, the arresting officer calls from behind the door: “Make it easy on yourself, Norton!” While the officer means, “Turn yourself in,” Norton doesn’t see that as making it easy on himself. His face turns from defiance and fear and “how the hell did this happen,” to the resignation that his only remaining option is the easy way out—not to go quietly, but to kill himself.

Shawshank Redemption is a perfect movie. The story is amazingly well-written and filmed perfectly so you get everything you need for a satisfying story, and nothing you don’t. I can’t think of any movie that I enjoy more than The Shawshank Redemption. And I’m not alone in this opinion. Shawshank is rated #1 on IMDb’s Top 250 movies. It’s above The Godfather, The Dark Knight, and even Schindler’s List. I will admit it’s strange my favorite movie has no speaking female characters whatsoever. However, I’ll take the trade-off for the story of Shawshank Prison, and the story of Andy and Red’s friendship, more than I’ll take a movie with unnecessary characters.

If you like Shawshank a fraction of how much I do and live in the Midwest, I highly recommend a trip to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio to learn about both the Hollywood history and the actual history this amazing prison.

“Get busy living, or get busy dying. That’s goddamn right.”

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