The mighty walls of the Ohio State Reformatory were originally designed with the expressed intention of inspiring the minds of young men to higher ideals, so it is not surprising to find the place enshrined in powerful works of art.
There is a lot of attention given to OSR as it appeared in the field of classic American film, but perhaps this bright light tends to overshadow another genre of the arts wherein our landmark is also significantly re-presented: in American Literature.
One of the most compelling pieces of prison literature to emerge in the US in the 20th century was a novel written about the Mansfield Reformatory.
In fact, there are chapters of the book that were actually written inside the Reformatory.
The book is called Four Steps to the Wall by Jon Edgar Webb. It was written in pieces over a period from 1932 to 1947; was published in 1948; and in 1950 it nearly became OSR’s first feature film.
Jon Edgar Webb spent 30 months at OSR. In his first short stories he writes of looking out at night and seeing the distant lights of Mansfield.
He grew up in Cleveland and always aspired to be a writer. His first professional experiences with a typewriter were as a reporter for the Cleveland News where he covered the crime beat.
Writing the newspaper stories of so many crime scenes, police reports, and court cases Webb recognized two important things: that thieves made the news because they weren’t smart enough to keep from getting caught and; that reporters didn’t make much money.
He figured that he was smarter than the average crook and; that crime might pay better than his publisher.
He planned what he called a ‘jewel heist’ in Cleveland, and successfully got in and out of the armed robbery crime scene as a smart criminal.
Unfortunately for him, Webb made his getaway down the wrong alley, and that was how he was given the opportunity to spend time at the Reformatory. It was unfortunate for him, but fortunate for American Literature.
Jon Edgar was correct about one thing: he was definitely smarter than the average con at the Reformatory, and the Warden recognized this. He was appointed chief editor of the prison newspaper.
Putting out the paper at OSR gave Jon Edgar unique opportunities that laid a groundwork of skill sets that served him well in the following decades.
For one, he became expert at setting type and designing the printed page. In the 1950s and 60s he used these skills to contribute significantly to American Literature by producing hand-printed volumes promoting the works of famous Beat poets.
For another, it gave him the chance to see his stories in print.
It seems astonishing today to think that the Prison Administration in the 1930s allowed him the artistic latitude to publish stories that were so raw and honest.
As editor and reporter he was granted free run of the whole joint, and was able to witness the entire spectrum of prison experience. His keen powers of observation combined with a deep sense of compassion, reported with brutal honesty, is what made his writing so cogent.
When he eventually assembled the 20-30 stories together into a coherent narrative, the finished novel was not only a prime exemplar of American Prison Literature, but a highly entertaining read as well.
It was also an unparalleled documentation of life inside OSR during its prime years of operation. His descriptions of moving around the scenes of cellblocks, hallways, “into sun rays slanting down through the tall, cathedral-like block windows;” give a clear sense of what our landmark was like inside the wall.
The portrait is sometimes horrifying, occasionally very funny, and often quite touching.
Four Steps to the Wall has several very intriguing parallels to another major OSR work of popular culture: Shawshank Redemption.
The main character in Four Steps is always asking his fellow inmates, “Do you need anything?” because he is the one in the prison system to whom everybody comes when they want to acquire something illegal or contraband.
Similarly, the narrator in Shawshank is the designated procurer for all the inmate population. In fact, his first lines of voiceover in the film are quoted directly from the first words of the Stephen King story that the movie was based on:
“There’s a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess—I’m the guy who can get it for you.”
In Shawshank that line describes the fictional narrator. In Four Steps it describes the fictional protagonist. In 1933 Mansfield, Ohio it described the actual OSR inmate 27268: Jon Edgar Webb.
Another striking parallel between Four Steps and Shawshank is the importance in both stories of the OSR sewer pipe as an escape route from prison.
While the Shawshank prisoner famously achieves his freedom by way of the sewer pipe, Jon Edgar Webb explained in considerable detail why that particular route of exit was nearly impossible.
Prisoners at OSR were discussing the perils of that sewer pipe when he was there in 1933—50 years before Stephen King wrote the story, and 60 years before the movie screenplay.
Webb explained that the actual drainpipe that dumped into the Rocky Fork narrowed over its length so that it became too small at the end for a person to fit through. Enough prisoners had died attempting it since the prison was built in 1887, that few considered it a serious option.
After Jon Edgar Webb was paroled from prison he continued writing stories of OSR, and published a number of them in magazines of the 1930s, where all American novelists back then got their start in the literary world.
By 1947 he had landed a contract with a New York publisher for his novel, with the stipulation that he edit the text to be a little less honest with his presentation of prison language.
During the ensuing season of rewrites he sent his manuscript to a number of authors and critics for commentary, and this collection of correspondence exposes the terrific vulnerability and insecurity that followed him across the US with the stigma of being an ex-con.
There is one sentence among these letters however, that gives significant insight into the magnitude of the dream Webb pursued with his book: “I want desperately for it to be as near ‘the’ prison novel as can be done by any ex-convict in the country today.”
It was a tall order. It could be matched in magnitude only by the high walls of OSR that inspired it.