The event provided viewers with 160 visually striking and stunningly interesting photographs that sits in the lobby of the 13th floor Press Club, and one of those series of photographs depict life at the now closed Lorton Prison.
The images were taken and submitted by Nancy Shia, Director of the Lorton Prison Stories Project. She took a few minutes to answer a few questions.
Is there anything you wish the public could have seen that you saw?
The programs that the prison administration, the inmates, and other people brought in. This was a medium security population; but it was also a population of people that were doing hard time. What worked was the stabbings and killings slowed down and even came to a halt as one brief point because the residents were allowed to organize themselves, with positive rehabilitative type activities.
Should Lorton still exist today?
Oh...absolutely! The agreement that was made to remove it from Lorton, Virginia completely violated inmates rights. Part of the agreement said ever D.C. inmate will not be placed beyond 250 miles from the District of Columbia. That's not happening. What the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] is doing now is breaking up homes and destroying families. Residents who are in prison don't have that family connection that was once so vital. It's important that the BOP keep to what they promised.
What would say to people that say D.C. is a unique entity, and would be impossible to keep that kind of an agreement giving the number of D.C. inmates in prison and other persons incarcerated?
It was promised in the agreement when they shut Lorton, that they would do it, and they simply haven't done that. The federal government is more interested in harassing D.C. residents than trying to keep their families together. If they didn't intend to do it then, why would they say they would do it?
Probably because the county residents wanted the prison out of the county. The population exploded with more affluent people who are used to a certain way of living and Lorton was possibly in the way.
Right. So it was a con-job. So I say the government should live up to their agreement and help keep D.C. residents in the right frame of mind by bringing them closer to their families. I saw first hand how they felt and hope D.C. residents behind bars can once again get that feeling back.
So what was being housed in Lorton like? To get a better response, I went to a former inmate.
61 year old Tyrone Graves is a returning citizen who was once incarcerated at Lorton for burglary remembers his time there.
"Being at Lorton was a mixed bag, for real," he said. "Unusual behavior and different thinking is needed when you feel like everywhere you go is like being in a crowded room all the time; every day. People claim their spots, and sometimes claim your stuff - or you too - and you have to be ready for anything and everything. That's what Lorton was like."
He added that Lorton was open dormitory, so much of the time inmates were allowed to come and go on the grounds as they pleased. During the day the area was not as bad, but his concern was at night.
He said, "When they turned out the lights, thats when the action went down - the predators really came out. Whatever rehabilitation the original creators wanted to establish, wasn't happening there because we could get guns if we wanted; whatever we wanted. We could even get drugs and prostitutes if we wanted too."
Another former resident Tony (he didn't want his real name used) had a different take.
"Jail is terrible, period," he said definitively. "But going to Lorton wasn't really that bad. We all called it sweet time, because it was a home away from home, man. We all pretty much knew each other, and was related in some kind of way; you know what I mean? The inmates were related to other inmates and the guard too. I had a cousin that worked on the administrative side of Lorton. And a bunch of people there said it looked no different than their neighborhoods they've left, and man, I agree. Pretty much everything from the streets carried over to Lorton."
The prison was built on a beautiful patch rolling green landscape along the Occoquan River; really prime real estate.
What most people don't know is that the Lorton Reformatory inmates were given the odd task of building their own prison, through the approval of then-President Theodore Roosevelt's commissioning of a workhouse and reformatory to serve the District of Columbia specifically, in 1908, that would be overseen by Snowden Ashford, D.C. Municipal Architect, and Leon E. Dessez, special architect.
The idea of having inmates build the jail was one of many progressive themes of the day. It was believed the inmates would acquire redemption through industry and self-sufficiency. All they administrative people involved in helping to get the program started believe that this would encourage these inmates to lead better lives, but over the course of the next 80 years Lorton would eventually become a notorious and overcrowded facility.
And instead of being provided with services through the federal government or the District of Columbia, inmates farmed the land, ran a dairy and slaughterhouse, and paved the roads. They built many of the buildings with bricks made on the grounds. And since these inmates were literally building their own prison they created and open-air “prison without walls” establishment. To many people, it resembled a 2,000 acre university campus.
Construction of Lorton began in the 1910s. Inmates lived in tents and quickly constructed wooden buildings while they worked to build the buildings.
A lot of local history took place at the prison. In November 1917, Lucy Burns was housed there after she and other women staged considered a nonviolent protest at the White House in support of women’s right to vote. And several notable people were sentenced to there: Chuck Brown, Elizabeth Selden Rogers, Petey Greene, and, Doris Stevens.
During the Cold War the facility hosted Nike missile site W-64 too; and a recycling facility and landfill in the 1980s.
At the prison's heyday, it gobbled up more than 2,700 acres, including the workhouse, the reformatory and the penitentiary, whose most historic and recognizable buildings were constructed between the 1920s and the 1950s.
But by the 1990s, the prison was bursting at the seams, with more than 8,000 inmates [almost 50 percent over capacity]. Sadly, it had a recidivism rate of about 90 percent.
Then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va) commented that the area that made up Lorton was an eyesore. The southern part of Fairfax County,where it was located, was quickly becoming a nuisance to county residents.
In 2001, the Lorton Prison Complex officially closed, and on July 15, 2002, Fairfax County received title to the facility, through the Lorton Technical Corrections Act passed by Congress in October 1998.
Today, structures still remain because the Act required that they not be destroyed. So to county to maximize use of land for open space, the Lorton Arts Foundation, Fairfax County and other organizations transformed much of it to an arts complex that opened in September 2008; the Workhouse Arts Center - and the Fairfax County Parks Authority brought in a 18-hole golf course opened on the site of the prison’s dairy farm.
Slightly more 500 acres of the core property have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District.
Part of the former prison's large acreage was renamed to Laurel Hill (named after the 18th century house which still standing on the property that was once owned by a Revolutionary War patriot).
You may not learn all of this through viewing the photos at the National Press Building, but you will have a chance to add a visual to what's been covered.
The photos will be on display throughout the month of September.