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
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 for the District of Columbia, United States, in 1910 that 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 It became known in its later years, however, as an outdated and badly overcrowded facility.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 pickets of the women's suffrage movement in the Washington D.C. area, approximately 168 women, most from the National Women's Party, were detained and mistreated at the Medium Security facility from June to December 1917. (This was later dramatized in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels.) Some suffragists at the facility were force-fed after they began hunger strikes.[6] Also, November 14, 1917, is known as the "Night of Terror" because suffragist prisoners were beaten and abused.[7]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Staff (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.

Further reading[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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