A Short History of the D.C. Correctional Complex at Lorton
The Workhouse, Reformatory and Penitentiary buildings of the DC Prison at Lorton were active over a 92-year period on land bought by the US Govt. for use by the District of Columbia’s penal system. The initial purchase in 1910 of 1155 acres on the Occoquan River grew eventually to as much as 3500 acres. Pursuing a Progressive-Era reform policy, the Workhouse and Reformatory were supposed to “rehabilitate and reform prisoners through fresh air, good food and honest work.”
The first prisoners arrived on site in 1910 and lived in tents until they built and occupied temporary Workhouse buildings using wood from the property. Temporary housing for a Reformatory for “hopeful” inmates opened in 1916. Initially, neither the Workhouse nor the Reformatory had walls, fences, cells, or locks and the prisoners lived dormitory style.
Wooden structures at the Workhouse and Reformatory were replaced in the 1920’s and 30’s by today’s brick facilities. DC’s first architect, Snowden Ashford, designed the buildings of both the Workhouse and the Reformatory in Colonial Revival architectural style to convey Progressive-Era ideals of the integration of work, home, education, recreation, health and religion.
In pursuit of the Workhouse’s and Reformatory’s mission, inmates raised beef and dairy cattle, hogs, poultry, vegetables and fruit. Corn, wheat and hay for horses were also produced on the complex’s extensive acreage. Initially farmed with horse power, it was 95% mechanized in 1950. At its height, prisoners farmed 1300 acres. Over time the farming operations declined and ended in 1998 with the dairy’s closure.
Industry was a major activity of the Reformatory. Male inmates made license plates, brooms, furniture, mattresses, hydrants, and manhole covers. They became electricians, plumbers, mechanics and performed maintenance on the facilities. Female prisoners sewed clothing ran the laundry and helped with the gardens…
A prisoner built and run Lorton & Occoquan Railroad from the Occoquan wharf to the tracks of the RF&P railroad (near today’s Amtrak Auto train station) were built by 1922 and transported prisoners and materials such as coal bricks, wood and industrial products.
From 1931 to 1938, a 10-acre walled Penitentiary with cellblocks was built by inmates using bricks made in kilns along the Occoquan. It was later referred to as Maximum Security and housed the more hardened criminals.
An anti-aircraft missile site was built on the Complex by the US Army in 1953-54 for defense against a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The missile system (nicknamed “Nike” after the Greek goddess of victory) became the showplace for other such systems across the nation. It closed in 1974 with the signing of the ABM Agreement with the Soviets; the launch area was converted into a 400-bed minimum security facility in 1985.
A Youth Center opened in 1960 and the buildings and grounds were designed to resemble a college campus to permit inmates some freedom of movement inside its 12-foot high perimeter fence.
An interdenominational prison church, St. Paul’s Chapel, was dedicated in 1961 at the Reformatory. Designed & built by inmates, it could seat 1200 when all three naves were opened.
In 1966, the US Appeals Court’s Easter Decision ruled alcoholism a public health problem, not a crime. Most Workhouse inmates had been arrested for public intoxication. As a result almost 60% of the inmates were released leaving insufficient inmates to staff the farm and other Workhouse operations. In 1966, the brickyard also closed after 55 years and its 200 acres were leased to the Northern Virginia Park Authority.
The Men’s and Women’s Workhouses were closed between 1966 and 1968 and the remaining inmates were transferred to other DC or Federal prisons. Most of the buildings were turned over to DC’s Public Health Dept. for use as an Alcohol Rehabilitation Center. The buildings came back into use later on as medium security facilities, but only for males.
The empty space at the Workhouse was put to use in 1967 to house protestors arrested at the Pentagon demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Norman Mailer wrote of his experiences as a “political prisoner” at the facility in his book, Armies of the Night. In 1968, civil rights’ protestors – arrested at the Peoples’ March on Washington – were kept there as well.
By 1995 the Lorton Complex housed at least 7300 inmates, 54% above capacity. The District of Columbia lacked the funds needed to construct housing for the exploding population and to maintain the facilities at adequate staffing level, The US Government therefore assumed overall financial and administrative control of the prison system via a trusteeship arrangement.
The communities around the complex were eager for the prison to be closed. Virginia Congressmen Davis and Moran and Senator Warner led negotiations with the US Government concerning the future of the prison at Lorton… In 1997 and 1998, legislation was passed closing it. The last prisoners left in November 2001.
After the Lorton Prison’s closure, 2324 acres were sold to Fairfax County in 2002 for $4.2M. The County had earlier undertaken a comprehensive adaptive reuse study for this prime location. The Lorton Arts Foundation opened the Workhouse Arts Center at Lorton in September, 2008.