Christine Bryant – Personal Column

Former Prison Has Stories To Tell

Just about an hour north of Columbus is a castle-like structure, with a magnificent combination of architectural styles that are reminiscent of the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s a beauty to the eye of anyone who appreciates the amount of painstaking work that must have gone into building this 250,000 =-square-foot structure.

The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield is surely a historic treasure, but it’s also one of darkness and sadness that can only e experienced by walking the halls of this prison that over its lifetime housed 155,00 prisoners.

One of the things I love most about being a writer is that I get to journey outside of my comfort zone and learn about people and places I may not otherwise have met or seen in my day-to-date activities.

Nothing could have prepared me, however, for stepping into another work that exists behind the walls of this unforgettable structure.

Listed on the National and State Register of Historic Places, the Ohio State Reformatory almost met the same fate as the Ohio Penitentiary where Nationwide Arena now stands in Columbus. It wasn’t until “The Shawshank Redemption” was filled on side that a renewed interest in the prison developed.

Thanks to the work of the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, the prison is being restored so that many generations to come can visit and learn about its extraordinary past.

With that past, however comes stories few humans can tell, yet the winding corridors, dark cells and a cemetery that features tombstones only marked by numbers will always be able to tell – as long as the walls remain standing.

Though castle-like on the outside, the fairy tale stops there. The building itself is beautiful, but it’s difficult to overcome a feeling of dread as you walk the same halls as criminals once did. It an also be difficult, yet intriguing, to see many pieces the preservation society has acquired, from various shanks and weapons, jewelry and other collections made by inmates to an original electric chair acquired from the Ohio Penitentiary, where several met their demise.

The reformatory opened in 1896 and for decades served as a place to rehabilitate prisoners. The architecture of the building was constructed in a style that would encourage inmates to “rebirth” their spiritual lives – to turn away from their sinful lifestyle and towards repentance. Inmates where taught a trade so once they were released, they would move on to become productive citizens – many starting families and working in the same community they were once imprisoned.

A handful of former prisoners still keep in contact with the preservation society, and one even is working as a volunteer to restore the structure.

The Ohio State Reformatory was what many argue to this day prisons should be about – reforming so that once prisoners walk out the games, opportunity awaits.

Along the way, however, the reformatory began to take a different, darker tone. Although it remained operational through most of the 20th century, in 1990, it was closed by federal court order after a prisoners’ class action suit cited overcrowding and inhuman conditions. It was replaced with the construction of a replacement facility, the Mansfield Correctional Institution, just west of the old prison,.

Today, visitors may tour the reformatory, participating in self-guided and guided tours, and even take part in special events like ghost hunts that allow guest to track the supernatural. If visiting, you’ll also want to check out the collection of artifacts that are in what preservationists home will become the largest museum that features relics from the penal system.

Though it’s easy to argue over what the goals or purpose of prison systems should be today, historic structures like the Ohio State Reformatory provide an important platform for those conversations. To some, the old prison may be just that – a building that no longer serves a purpose and is simply walls filled with cells that once housed criminals.

Instead I offer you this quote from historian R.G. Collingwood: “History is for human self-knowledge….the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.”

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The ugly side of social media

I once wrote a column about the greatness of groups found on Facebook, specifically those for moms and dads.

These groups, often named after the particular community from which it draws its members, allow you to post questions – anything from what pediatricians fellow members love to advice on where to find the best vacuum cleaner or bedspread.

Yes, it can be that exciting some days, but sometimes as a parent – or just a human being – you genuinely wonder where you can get the best vacuum cleaner for the least price, and these groups are here to help.

However, this weekend, I saw the ugly side of these types of forums.

As many of you know by the loud booms outside your windows, the first weekend in July showcased many Independence Day activities including parades. After a local community’s parade, a woman posted on a mom’s group page on Facebook how disappointed she was that her children left the parade with only a few pieces of candy. She went as far to say that next year, she’ll likely seek out another parade for her family.

My first thought when I saw her post was that she should have come to Reynoldsburg’s parade. My kids came home with a huge stash of candy that almost made me think it was Halloween. I didn’t give it much more thought, and kept scrolling. A few minutes later I scrolled back up and immediately noticed the comments under her posting.

While many were repulsed by what she had written, I was repulsed by what I began to see transpire on this forum. She immediately faced backlash under her post, which was soon after deleted – I’m guessing because she began to realize what was about to happen.

But that didn’t stop the conversation – and by conversation, that’s putting it mildly.

Another member created a new post stating that if someone was going to come on a page and complain (another word was used that rhymes with stitch) because there wasn’t a lot of candy at the parade, to tag themselves and she’d go buy a pound of candy at the dollar store and throw it at them.

Another 50 or so comments under the second post agreed, stating the original poster didn’t know the meaning of the holiday and how ridiculous it was of her to post something so trivial. Some posts were mild, others were sarcastic and condescending – maybe because they were offended or possibly because they saw an opportunity to speak their mind behind the veil that Facebook provides.

The original poster’s comment was of course trivial. But here’s the mom in me that’s going to admit something. At the parade I attended, not a lot of people were giving out candy at the beginning. I stood there watching my 4-year-old daughter eagerly waiting, holding a plastic bag in anticipation of receiving what probably was in her mind just a few pieces of candy.

I was the one who had given her the bag and told her that in addition to seeing some cool floats and getting to wave to everyone – which, by the way, was probably her favorite part – people might be handing out candy. If no one would have given out candy, I would have felt a little sad for her.

Yes, the Fourth of July is absolutely not about candy. But it is about celebrating this nation’s independence, and for a lot of people, celebrating and remembering those who have sacrificed along the way to ensure we maintain our freedoms – one of those being freedom of speech.

All of this – my thoughts as a mom, our freedoms – are beside the point, however.

For having an opinion, no matter how trivial or ridiculous it might be, this woman was instantly ganged up upon by a group of women who saw it as an opportunity to set her straight. As each post mounted, a gang mentality occurred – as some members of the group went so far as to call her names.

All this over a post about candy – which is ironic considering many people commented on her triviality.

This isn’t out of the norm, however. Take a look at any article – especially on national sites during this tumultuous political climate – and you’ll see hundreds of comments by people unafraid to personally attack someone because of a difference of opinion. The web has created an atmosphere where people feel they can say anything because there is no human on the receiving end of it – except that there is.

I wasn’t at the parade in question, and I certainly don’t know the original poster who complained about the lack of candy. For all I know, she could have been having a bad day, could have had screaming kids and her frustration was misdirected, or she could just be a person who chose to complain about something most people probably find petty.

What I do know is there is probably an explanation of why there was little candy at this event, and that probably could have been easily relayed to her. I also know that sometimes rational explanations do no good with irrational people.

Either way, no matter which direction this situation could have or should have gone, a little bit of kindness can go a long way.

As the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.”


Saying Goodbye to Cherished Pet is Never Easy

It’s never easy to know when to say goodbye.

Often times, as pet owners, we have the unique responsibility of deciding when the furry, scaly or feathered members of our family shouldn’t have to suffer anymore. It’s something no one looks forward to, yet as a pet owner, you know that day eventually could come. You also know goodbyes are inevitable.

About two weeks ago, my family said goodbye to our Annie, who at almost 14, was suffering from kidney failure.

I adopted Annie from a greyhound rescue about nine years ago. She was a retired racer, having competed in Kenosha, Wis., for about a year. A decade ago, greyhound racing was still popular, and though some tracks still exist, many have since closed.

Once greyhounds are finished racing, rescue groups often race themselves to take in the dogs that the kennel owners no longer want, ultimately saving their lives and giving them a family.

When Annie came into my life, I was living in Indiana. I had heard about greyhounds, but didn’t know much about them, so I reached out to a local rescue organization. A volunteer contacted me and asked me to stop by a pet store where the group would be that Saturday, and that he had a dog in mind for me.

When I met Annie, I have to admit I was a little unsure of whether our relationship was going to work. The rescue volunteers said she had been adopted out once, but was returned. As we walked around the store together, her stubborn side immediately came through as she planted her feet and refused to move in any direction except the one she wanted to go.

She also immediately stole my heart, however, with her leaning.

If you’ve never met a greyhound, you’ve probably never experienced one of the ways they say hello. I’m not entirely sure why they do this, but greyhounds love throwing their entire body weight against your legs. Make sure you have good footing, otherwise you’ll end up on the ground next to them.

I took Annie home that day, and I remember lying on the floor next to her, both of us with that “What do we do now?” kind of look.

It wasn’t always easy. Having a dog of my own brought a set of challenges I hadn’t expected, from dealing with separation anxiety to working through what I suspect were the lasting effects of years of abuse of a racer.

But what I remember most are the good memories – the days watching her outrun all the other dogs at the dog part, our staring contests when she wanted something (usually a biscuit), and our walks along Lake Michigan as she pranced around in the sand.

Nine years and many memories later, we said goodbye one last time. Her health had began to deteriorate from kidney failure, but over the last month, it became apparent her time with us was coming to a close.

It’s always difficult to know the right moment when you have a pet suffering from a chronic illness, that moment when you’re confident you aren’t cutting your pet’s life short too early. That moment when you know it’s time.

That night, Annie started experiencing violent tremors in her legs, which our veterinarian said was likely the beginning of seizures caused by neurological issues stemming from kidney failure.

It was time.

I still hear her footsteps coming down the hall, despite the fact she’s no longer here. I suspect I will for a while.

I’ll always remember that day nine years ago when Annie and I met. Though it may have seemed I was there to adopt her, I think in many ways she picked me. Rest easy, sweet Annie.