Lorton Reformatory

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D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District
Lorton Reformatory - from the quad4.jpg
The historic prison from the quad
Lorton Reformatory is located in Northern Virginia
Lorton Reformatory
Lorton Reformatory is located in Virginia
Lorton Reformatory
Lorton Reformatory is located in the US
Lorton Reformatory
Location Laurel Hill, Virginia
Area 511.3 acres (206.9 ha)
Built 1910 (1910)
Architectural style Colonial Revival, Beaux Arts
NRHP reference # 06000052[1]
VLR # 029-0947
Significant dates
Added to NRHP February 16, 2006
Designated VLR December 7, 2005, March 27, 2012[2]

The Lorton Reformatory was a prison built in 1910 for the District of Columbia, United States, in what is now known as Laurel Hill, Virginia. It closed in 2001.[3] It was operated by the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. Lorton was also the site of a bunker used by the government from 1959 to 2001 that housed emergency communications equipment to be used in the event of a war with the Soviet Union.


Plans for the workhouse were ongoing in 1910 with Snowden Ashford as the Municipal Architect responsible for the workhouse while Leon E. Dessez was the special architect who was appointed by the commissioners to draft plans for the new workhouse.[4] It opened in 1916 as a facility for less serious offenders in the Lorton Correctional Complex. It is located in nearby Lorton in southern Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a special Penal Commission to investigate deplorable conditions of the District of Columbia's jail and workhouse in Washington. As a result, the Commission recommended a complete change in the philosophy and treatment of prisoners in D.C. The United States Congress acted upon this recommendation, and a 1,155-acre (5 km2) tract north of the Occoquan River was purchased in 1910 through condemnation proceedings.

Classically inspired, symmetrical dormitory complexes were constructed instead of cellblocks. The brick buildings were built by the prisoners themselves, using brick manufactured at the on-site kiln complex located on the banks of the Occoquan. It became known in its later years, however, as an outdated and badly overcrowded facility. The last prisoners were removed from Lorton Reformatory late in 2001.[5] As a result of the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997, felons from the District of Columbia began going to Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.[citation needed]

As a result of the Silent Sentinels pickets of the women's suffrage movement at the White House in Washington D.C., approximately 168 women, most from the National Women's Party, were detained and mistreated at the Medium Security facility from June to December 1917. Some suffragists at the facility were force-fed after they began hunger strikes.[6] The night of November 14, 1917, is known as the "Night of Terror" because of how badly the suffragist prisoners were tortured, beaten, and abused.[7] These events were dramatized in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels.

Near the Reformatory lies Revolutionary War patriot William Lindsay's circa 1790 estate known as Laurel Hill. This house served as a residence for the reformatory superintendent.[8]

Initially only the maximum security section was fenced, but fences were established for other sections in the 1970s due to area politicians asking for the closing of the prison and increased concerns over prison escapes.[9]

The reformatory had its own railroad, the Lorton and Occoquan Railroad that operated from 1911 to 1977.

Lorton Reformatory also hosted Nike missile site W-64.

On July 15, 2002, Fairfax County received title to the facility. The transfer was enabled by the Lorton Technical Corrections Act passed by Congress in October 1998. It required the county to develop a plan to maximize use of land for open space, parkland or recreation prior to the transfer. Plans for the land the prison occupied can be found at the Fairfax County planning site.[10]

The site has been part of the D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District since February 16, 2006.


  • The Youth Center, housing 18-22 year old prisoners, opened in 1960 and was established due to the post-World War II era anti-juvenile delinquency law Federal Youth Corrections Act of 1950. It was located next to the Fairfax County Landfill and in proximity to the prison's dairy farm. The initial concept is that the young prisoners could acquire a trade and/or get an education and then have their records expunged. Initially the prisoners carried books called "So We All Understand" and wore suits and ties. The building was designed to resemble a campus of a university, and it used open plan dormitories. At some point older adult felons began to be housed alongside the younger prisoners. Eddie Dean of the Washington City Paper stated that the center became "a sort of parody of its original inception".[11] According to Dean, at one time it was the "murder capital" of Lorton, but by 1997 the Youth Center became "a relatively calm and safe compound, especially compared with the Quack."[11]
  • Occoquan Facility or "Quack"[11]

Notable prisoners[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

Portrayals of events at the Occoquan Workhouse played a key part in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels, a film about the history of the National Woman's Party, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and other members of the 1910s Women's Voting Rights Movement.

Lorton Reformatory 2016[edit]

In 2002, The "Lorton Arts Foundation" sought to reuse the property of the former prison. The idea was to simply reconstruct and repair the prison facility and turn it into a Cultural Arts Center. Of course, much had to be altered to serve as such a place. In 2004, approval from "The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors" allowed the project to get under way. Soon after the decision was made to repurpose the land and old historic buildings, restoration began. Walls were repaired, rooms were completely cleared, and of course, the tall fences around the property were taken down. In 2008, the Arts Center was ready to be used by the public. With four years to build and restore, six separate buildings were transformed into the headquarters for hobbies of all types. Ceramics, photography, painting, theatre, film and much more is now offered and accessible by the public within these buildings. Classes are offered to those who wish to learn, in most or all of the categories offered. The Cultural Arts Center also houses famous pieces of art by renown, and local artists. Well-known artists have visited the center to teach, and to present their work. With over 800 different art classes offered, this has become a safe heaven for the aspiring artist.

Along with the Cultural Arts Center, the once prison yard has now become home to baseball and soccer fields. With a lot of grass still available, plans are in place to add more athletic fields. During Halloween the essence of the old Prison is reawaken. Many attend a yearly walk through of the old grounds, with elements set in place to spook the guests. Theatre stages have been set up in order to host local theatre organizations.

Walkthroughs/tours were offered before the restoration begun in 2004. Many were able to apply online for a spot in the tour. Rooms such as the cafeteria, Warden's office, shower room, cell dorms and more were on the guided tour. While much has been restored, tours of the prison are still offered, however the authenticity might be slightly less. Either way the history is preserved, and provides a look into what the prison once was.

Some are attracted to the idea that they are standing where once convicted felons were. Guard towers are still surrounding the grounds. The buildings themselves still have an ominous look to them. The Wardens house is still intact, and the once "cell block" or in this case the dormitories used by the inmates are still there. The appeal to the Cultural Arts Center is plentiful, offering artistic accessibility to thousands, while effectively reusing once restricted property.



  1. ^ National Park Service (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 5 June 2013. 
  3. ^ "In 1997 and 1998, legislation was passed closing it. The last prisoners left in November 2001." A Short History of the D.C. Correctional Complex at Lorton, Workhouse Prison Museum (accessed 19 December 2013)
  4. ^ Lorton Occoquan Workhouse Northern Virginia History Notes
  5. ^ Kovaleski, Serge F. Lorton's Final Lockdown" - The Washington Post - Tuesday November 20, 2001 - B01
  6. ^ "What Good is a Hunger Strike Today? - Defending Dissent Foundation". Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  7. ^ "Night of Terror Leads to Women's Vote in 1917". Women's eNews. Retrieved January 8, 2014. 
  8. ^ Historic Context of the Prison p. 3 Retrieved January 17, 2010
  9. ^ Shin, Annys. "Ten Things to Do Before Closing a Prison" (Archive). Washington City Paper. March 9, 2001. Retrieved on February 5, 2016.
  10. ^ Lower Potomac District Land Use and Development 2007 Edition Amended as of May 4, 2009 pp. 22-60. Retrieved January 17, 2010
  11. ^ a b c Dean, Eddie. "Maximum Insecurity" (Archive). Washington City Paper. June 6, 1997. Retrieved on February 5, 2016.
  12. ^ Arnold, Mary Edith Estes (January 18, 2009). "Jailed for the Freedom to Vote". The Kappa Alpha Theta Magazine (Autumn 2008): 12. 
  13. ^ http://www.workhousearts.org/visit/guided-tours-field-trips/

Further reading[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Media related to Lorton Reformatory at Wikimedia Commons

Coordinates: 38°41′53″N 77°15′17″W / 38.69805°N 77.25483°W / 38.69805; -77.25483