The Ohio Penitentiary opened in Columbus in 1834 and continued to house prisoners until 1979. The state had built a small prison in Columbus in 1813. But as the state's population grew the earlier facility was not able to handle the number of prisoners sent to it by the courts. When the penitentiary first opened in 1834, not all of the buildings were completed.
A separate facility for women prisoners was completed within the walls of the Ohio Penitentiary in 1837. A number of women served on death row in the prison and ultimately faced execution either by hanging or in the electric chair. A separate prison called the Ohio Reformatory for Women was completed in 1913 in Marysville and the last women left the Ohio Penitentiary.
The Ohio Penitentiary in the nineteenth century reflected the common belief that prison was more for punishment than for rehabilitation. Conditions within the prison were primitive. Prisoners first slept on straw mattresses, although eventually beds were built. Food was very simple, usually consisting of cornbread, beans, and bacon. Prisoners were required to work in one of the prison industries, which made everything from harnesses and shoes to barrels and brooms. Diseases spread rapidly, and in 1930 the Ohio Penitentiary became the site of the worst fire in American prison history. At total of 322 lives were lost in the fire.
In 1885, the penitentiary became the site for executions, which had been carried out by local law enforcement officials up to that time. At first, prisoners condemned to death were executed by hanging, but in 1897 the electric chair replaced the prison's gallows. A total of 315 prisoners, both men and women, were electrocuted between 1897 and 1963, when the death penalty was halted in Ohio.
In the early twentieth century, the Ohio Penitentiary and other prisons in Ohio began to come under attack. Conditions within the facility were not good, and the public view of prisons was beginning to change. In addition, there were problems with bribery, and prisoners with connections received better treatment than the rest. After the fire in 1930, there were even more demands for prison reform. Most of the changes took place after World War II, although reforms did not come quickly enough to keep three prison riots from occurring. Attention was paid to conditions of overcrowding in the post-war years, but prison morale was also a very serious issue. The worst riot occurred in June 1968. A number of buildings were destroyed and five convicts were killed. After this riot, the State of Ohio began an investigation, which led to the decision to replace the facility.
Over the years, thousands of prisoners were imprisoned within the Ohio Penitentiary. In April 1955, the prison population reached a peak with 5,235 prisoners living there. Memorable inmates of the penitentiary over the years included General John H. Morgan during the Civil War, George "Bugs" Moran, and Sam Shephard. William Sydney Porter found his pen name of "O. Henry " while serving in the penitentiary in the late 1890s. Other inmates included Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley and Russell Clark, members of John Dillinger's gang.
The State of Ohio decided to replace the old prison with a new, more modern, facility in Lucasville, Ohio. The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility began to receive prisoners from the Ohio Penitentiary in 1972. Court decisions ultimately ordered the prison to be closed in 1979, with the last prisoner required to leave by December 31, 1983. The deadline was extended by eight months, when the last prisoners were transported to other facilities.
The City of Columbus bought the old penitentiary in 1995. After lengthy discussion as the best use of the site, the buildings were demolished to make way for new development. Many Ohioans sought a brick from the Ohio Penitentiary as a souvenir of its long history.
- Dyer, B.F. History of the Ohio Penitentiary, Annex and Prisoners. Columbus, OH: Ohio Penitentiary Print, 1891.
- Jordan, Philip D. Ohio Comes of Age: 1874-1899. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1943.
- Lindley, Harlow. Ohio in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1938. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1942.
- Morgan, Daniel J. Historical Lights and Shadows of the Ohio Penitentiary. Columbus, OH: Ohio Penitentiary Print, 1893.
- Weisenburger, Francis P. The Passing of the Frontier: 1825-1850. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1941.
- Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.