Behind the Wall
Located in Lorton, VA
Photo © 2006 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Lorton Reformatory History
In 1908, rumors of deplorable conditions at the District of Columbia's jail and workhouse in Washington sparked a special investigation by president Theodore Roosevelt. A special Penal Commission was appointed and after review, recommended a complete change in the treatment of D.C. prisoners. The federal government responded in 1910 by purchasing a 1,155 acre tract of land in Lorton Virginia, where a new kind of workhouse was to be constructed. The Lorton Reformatory featured symmetrical brick buildings in Classical architecture, laid out as dormitories rather than cell blocks. The open-air designs let in sunlight and fresh air, and the number of walls and watch towers were kept to a minimum.
The Lorton prison complex, situated on Laurel Hill, consisted of seven separate facilities. The Workhouse, also known as the Occoquan Facility, operated as an agricultural work camp, complete with a poultry farm, hog ranch, slaughterhouse, dairy, blacksmith, sawmill and other structures. Inmates worked on farming the land, as well as producing brick and manhole covers, re-treading tires, and knitting sweaters. A medium security facility was located on site, but was demolished in 1998 - it most notably held 168 women from the pickets of the women's suffrage movement in 1917. The central Lorton Reformatory, built in 1920, was used to house more serious offenders, constructed with brick made by prisoners at the Occoquan Facility. Adjacent to this complex is the maximum security facility, the only area surrounded by walls. The Lorton site also included a minimum security facility (which also housed Nike missile site W-64), and a youth correction center.
Lorton's maximum security complex was known as "The Hill" by many, and had a reputation of being quite strict. The walled-in cell blocks had a capacity of 2,066 inmates, and was the last Lorton complex to close in November 2001.
In 2002, Fairfax County began rehabilitating the old prison for mixed-use development. In 2008, renovation of the old workhouse was completed, transforming the complex into a park and cultural arts center, and the grounds can now be toured by the public.