Workhouse Prison Museum at Lorton:
A Prison Built by Its Prisoners
The District of Columbia's Workhouse opened in Lorton, Virginia in the summer of 1910. It was an experiment to see if hard work in an open air environment would be an effective deterrent for short term prisoners who were habitual drunkards, vagrants and family abusers. A 3,200 acre tract of undeveloped land on the Occoquan River near Lorton, Virginia was purchased by the U.S. Government for the establishment of an "industrial farm". There prisoners built the stockade and tents in which they were housed using lumber obtained from the site. There were no cells, locks or bars. A brickyard was established, fields were prepared for cultivation, orchards created, a wharf built on the river and a road cut through to a nearby railroad.. Pigs and hens were raised commercially. Eventually the prisoners built the brick dormitory buildings still seen today of bricks they, themselves, had made.
A Women's Workhouse was opened in 1912 on a nearby site. Sentences were of short duration and were for soliciting, prostitution, disorderly conduct and drunkenness. Women did laundry and made clothes for the prisoners of the two institutions. Some worked on the lawn and in the garden.
In 1917, women began demonstrating in front of the White House for the right to vote. They decided they would rather be imprisoned than be quiet. In response to their outspoken protests during World War I, they were sentenced to fines or imprisonment. They chose imprisonment. Some of those arrested were sentenced to the Women's Workhouse at Lorton. The protestors were held under deplorable conditions. As news of the sentences spread, sympathy for the suffragists was aroused. Even the most hard hearted did not believe that pickets deserved such drastic sentence. After the pickets were released a number of women who had been arrested and served sentences toured the country on the "Prison Special" railroad car to keep public attention focused on the suffrage issue in the Senate. Finally the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919 and for the first time women were allowed to vote in the November 1920 national election.
Prison Life Museum
Serving Time at Hard Work
The Prison Life Museum will document the experiences of prisoners at the workhouse and subsequent reformatory which was built at Lorton. It will describe the changing penal techniques used during the 70-odd years of the facility to transform individuals into what society considered good, acceptable citizens.
Call for Contributions
If you are interested in supporting the Workhouse Museums, please make your contribution to the Lorton Arts Foundation, Inc., The Workhouse Museums, 9601 Ox Road, Lorton, VA 22079. Contributions are tax deductible.