Lorton Reformatory

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D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District
Guard Tower at Lorton Prison (8904432591).jpg
A guard tower
Lorton Reformatory is located in Northern Virginia
Lorton Reformatory
Lorton Reformatory is located in Virginia
Lorton Reformatory
Lorton Reformatory is located in the United States
Lorton Reformatory
LocationLaurel Hill, Virginia
Area511.3 acres (206.9 ha)
Built1910 (1910)
ArchitectSnowden Ashford; Harris, Albert
Architectural styleColonial Revival, Beaux Arts
NRHP reference No.06000052[1]
VLR No.029-0947
Significant dates
Added to NRHPFebruary 16, 2006
Designated VLRDecember 7, 2005, March 27, 2012[2]

The Lorton Reformatory, also known as the Lorton Correctional Complex, is a former prison complex in Lorton, Virginia, established in 1910 for the District of Columbia, United States.

The complex began as a prison farm called the Occoquan Workhouse for non-violent offenders serving short sentences. The District established an adjacent Reformatory in 1914, and then a 10-acre (4.0 ha) walled penitentiary constructed by inmates from 1931 through 1938, as a division of the Reformatory with heightened security. The complex came under the administration of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections when it was formed in 1946.

After further expansions, a peak size of 3,500-acre (1,400 ha), and 92 years of service, the facility was closed by law in the late 1990s. The final prisoners were transferred out in November 2001.[3]

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. Lorton Reformatory also hosted Nike missile site W-64.


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.[4]

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.

District architect Snowden Ashford drew plans for the workhouse in 1910, while Leon E. Dessez was the special architect appointed by the commissioners to draft plans for the new workhouse.[5] It opened in 1916 as a facility for less serious offenders in the Lorton Correctional Complex, with classically inspired, symmetrical dormitory complexes.

From 1911 the complex had its own railroad, the Lorton and Occoquan Railroad that operated until 1977.

From June to November 1917, a number of nationally prominent suffragists were arrested from their "Silent Sentinels" pickets of the White House at the White House, and held at the Occoquan Workhouse. Approximately 168 women, most from the National Women's Party, were mistreated at the workhouse. Some 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] 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.

View from the quad

The penitentiary buildings of the 1930s were constructed by the prisoners themselves, using brick manufactured at the on-site kiln complex from Occoquan River clay. 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.[8]

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".[9] 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."[9]

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.[10] 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]

On July 15, 2002, the property was sold to Fairfax County. 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. The site has been part of the D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District since February 16, 2006.

Cultural Arts Center[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, that will become known as the Workhouse 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 the tall fences around the property were taken down.

In 2008, the Arts Center was ready to be used by the public after four years to build and restore six separate buildings, transforming them into headquarters for hobbies of all types. Ceramics, photography, painting, theatre, film and much more is now offered and accessible by the public within the center. Classes are offered to those who wish to learn, in most or all of the categories offered. The Arts Center also houses famous pieces of art by local and renown 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 Workhouse 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. Many attend a yearly walk through of the old grounds, and stages have been set up in order to host local theater organizations. Walk-throughs and tours were offered before the restoration begun in 2004 to view rooms such as the cafeteria, Warden's office, shower room, and cell dorms. Guard towers still surround the grounds.

Notable prisoners[edit]

Suffragist Lucy Burns imprisoned at Occoquan Workhouse, 1917

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  2. ^ "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  3. ^ A Short History of the D.C. Correctional Complex at Lorton, Workhouse Prison Museum (accessed 19 December 2013)
  4. ^ Historic Context of the Prison p. 3 Retrieved January 17, 2010
  5. ^ Lorton Occoquan Workhouse Northern Virginia History Notes
  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. ^ Shin, Annys. "Ten Things to Do Before Closing a Prison" (Archive). Washington City Paper. March 9, 2001. Retrieved on February 5, 2016.
  9. ^ a b Dean, Eddie. "Maximum Insecurity" (Archive). Washington City Paper. June 6, 1997. Retrieved on February 5, 2016.
  10. ^ Kovaleski, Serge F. Lorton's Final Lockdown" - The Washington Post - Tuesday November 20, 2001 - B01
  11. ^ Arnold, Mary Edith Estes (January 18, 2009). "Jailed for the Freedom to Vote". The Kappa Alpha Theta Magazine (Autumn 2008): 12.

Further reading[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