For generations, District residents, young and old, could sum up the consequences of seriously violating the city’s laws in one word: “Lorton.” And “Lorton,” everyone knew, didn’t mean the once-sleepy Virginia farming community 20 miles south of Washington, but Lorton Correctional Complex, the District’s prison for the past 90 years.
At its peak, Lorton’s seven facilities were home to more than 10,000 men and women convicted of crimes ranging from simple drug possession to multiple murders. But now only 1,700 men remain at Lorton’s Central Facility, and the last of them will be gone, dispersed to other prisons across the country, by the end of September. Following Congress’ mandate in the 1997 National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act, the District will hand off its sentenced felons to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and pass legal responsibility for Lorton to the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government’s property-management and disposal arm, by the end of the year. The GSA will, in turn, hand the property over to Fairfax County.
Lorton has never been a typical prison. For one thing, it never quite looked like one. Opened in 1910 by the federal government as a Progressive Era experiment in rehabilitation for District convicts, Lorton originally had no fences or bars. Its classical-revival architecture, arch-lined walkways, and open dormitories instead of cells made it look more like a college campus than a place of penitence.
Today, you can drive down Lorton Road and never know that the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside were once part of the now-defunct prison farm, or that the two-lane brick bridges you pass along the way were built by Lorton inmates more than 40 years ago.
Many of the structures where prisoners once lived are hidden behind patches of trees, away from the road. Over the years, a few of the facilities have come to symbolize Lorton on the evening news. These days, the most recognizable part of Lorton is likely the old Reformatory, now called Central Facility, a collection of red-brick dormitories set back behind rows of razor wire and fences. Central Facility now houses high-medium-security inmates. In the ’80s, severe overcrowding and the constant threat of violence made the medium-security Occoquan Facility—or “the Quack,” as corrections officers call it—the symbol of Lorton’s troubles. But it’s the Maximum Security Facility that probably comes closest to the familiar image of a prison. With its imposing 25-foot-high stone wall, narrow metal cells, and peeling paint, “Max” looks like an understudy for Ohio’s Mansfield Reformatory, the memorable setting for The Shawshank Redemption.
Altogether, Lorton consists of 2 million square feet of building space spread out over 3,000 acres. But in a few short years, little of what you see now is likely to remain. A good number of the buildings will survive as part of a state and national historic district. But many of the structures are slated to make way for a mix of parklands and undisturbed countryside as well as housing. Already, there are half-million-dollar town homes pushing up against the prison property, and signs announcing new developments crop up all the time. And within chipping distance of the central administration building, which was rebuilt after inmates burned it down in 1989, the county has plans to put in a public golf course.
No longer will the District have an imposing physical symbol of its correctional system—and no longer will D.C. convicts be close to their community and their families. Thanks to technology, the children of a few prisoners will be able to listen to the prerecorded sounds of their incarcerated parents’ voices reading them to sleep. A small number of others will get to see their parents as pixels on the surface of computer screens. But for most District citizens, these men and women won’t become real again until the day they come home.
It’s a funny business, closing a prison. After all, the public rarely mourns the closing of a warehouse, especially the kind that houses those people society would like to forget. But as far as prisons go, there is no place quite like Lorton, and there probably won’t be again. So it’s with a certain mixture of apprehension, relief, and sadness that we say goodbye to the District’s prison, granting it a eulogy.
Call a Press Conference
It’s Jan. 31, 2001. A few hours have passed since the last 23 inmates left Lorton Correctional Complex’s Maximum Security Facility, and reporters are milling about in the cells, giving the detritus of papers and Playboy pinups a cursory once-over.
They are looking for signs of life. But they find only what has been left for them. And that is very little. Though the event was advertised as a press briefing, D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Odie Washington has chosen not to give remarks but to speak to everyone individually instead.
The absence of any official last words made the departure of the inmates anticlimactic. On cue, the Central Facility gate opened. A white school bus with a green stripe down the side slowly pulled out. Prisoners peered out through the darkened windows at the spectators outside. Some waved.
After idling for a while for photographers, the bus finally lumbered over the speed bumps and rolled out of the parking lot. Two burly officers from the Virginia Department of Corrections then piled into a massive green pickup truck with a top over the back. As the truck peeled out behind the bus, dogs barked angrily from behind tinted windows.
The dogs, the truck, and the bus were all headed down the interstate to the Red Onion State Prison in southwest Virginia—a world away from Lorton. In Virginia state prisons—but not at the DOC-controlled Lorton facilities—guards can fire rubber bullets at prisoners, and until recently, they subdued inmates using four-point restraints. (To use four-point restraints, correctional officers take an inmate to a special cell, make him strip to his socks and underwear, and strap his wrists, ankles, shoulders, chest, and thighs to a metal slab. At Sussex II State Prison in Waverly, Va., guards sometimes left inmates restrained for as long as three days, forcing them to lie in their own urine and feces. In August, D.C. Prisoners Legal Services, a prisoner advocacy group, sued over the practice at Sussex, and last month, the Virginia Department of Corrections agreed to stop it as part of a settlement agreement and also revised its restraint procedures statewide.) The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is investigating Red Onion officials for alleged excessive use of force. But as the gaggle of reporters and corrections officials watched the bus disappear around a wooded curve, few spoke of the prisoners’ destination. The reporters were more keen on getting over to Max to see what they had left behind.
As the last of the press pulls into the parking lot of the facility, WTOP news radio reporter Derrick Ward is already there, pacing. “I didn’t get any good sound with the bus leaving,” he complains over his cell phone.
The camera crews head toward the two gates that lead to the courtyard of the prison. The first gate doesn’t budge. “You gotta push!” a guard in the tower yells down. At the second, DOC spokesperson Bill Meeks, exuding Job-like patience, asks the cameraman from WUSA-TV, “Would you like to get this one closing?” Before you know it, Meeks is yelling up at the tower: “Excuse me! Can we close this and open it again?” The gate clicks shut. Meeks opens it again. The cameraman shakes his head. “Too fast?” asks Meeks. “Can we do it again?” he shouts to the tower. When the gate shuts this time, Ward puts his mike up to the gate.
The next stop is the central guard tower. At the top, everyone takes in the view over the Max wall toward a waterlogged ballfield where, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the likes of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald used to perform for inmates once a year. Inside the tower, life goes on, with or without prisoners. As the camera crews and the reporters clamber down the steep metal stairs, a corrections officer on the second floor watches Maury Povich on TV.
The tour winds its way to its final destination: Cell Block 3, one of seven two-story brick buildings that stand in two rows on opposite sides of the courtyard, facing one another. Until a few days ago, this was the administrative segregation unit, a squalid den for troublemakers and the mentally ill.
As the cameramen get long shots of the four tiers, the reporters fan out among the cells. Each cell greets them with a grim sameness: a metal slab for a bed, a steel combination basin/commode, and a waist-high cabinet. To the casual visitor, it seems as if the inmates have only just stepped out for a moment. There are loose papers in the cells: a handwritten exercise regimen, the business card of the prison monitor, cartoon strips cut out from the newspaper. The headline “Playmates 2000” is still stuck on a cabinet door; the playmates, however, are not.
But this is a far more civilized version of Cell Block 3 than existed just a couple years ago, a terrifying place former inmate that Lawrence Caldwell described in his 1997 lawsuit against the city. Caldwell complained that after being placed in the mental-health tier in Cell Block 3—even though he was not mentally ill—he regularly choked on smoke from inmate-set fires, gagged on the smell of human feces, and was not given timely treatment for his skin cancer despite his doctor’s orders. In January, a jury awarded Caldwell $175,000.
Without the usual human insulation, sound echoes throughout the tiers. Ward’s disembodied voice suddenly floats up the corridor, his inflection worthy of Rod Serling. “Three, two, one. I’m standing in Cell No. 8 of Cell Block 3. They used to call this the House—” he pauses for dramatic news-radio emphasis—”of Pain.”
The tape rolls next for WUSA-TV Channel 9’s Peggy Fox. “Three, two, one. Inmates in Cell Block 3 were on lockdown 23 hours a day. They got their food on a tray through a window. They were let out”—and here she, too, pauses for drama—”one hour a day.”
After exploring one of the two second-story tier, Karen Gray Houston of WTTG-TV Channel 5 carries herself daintily down the stairs. “Can you imagine living like this?” she asks no one in particular.
Later, Fox motions to William Pierceson, a corrections officer, to follow her down a walkway. D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Director Eric Lotke watches as the barrel-chested guard trails after her. “She’s going to ask him how he was stabbed,” Lotke says somewhat wearily, having heard the story before.
With a cell at his back and a camera rolling before him, Pierceson tells his story: “If we’re in a situation where we’re gonna fight, we’re gonna fight.”
“Do you put that mind-set aside when you go home?” Fox asks with a chuckle.
“My wife and my family don’t talk about my job,” Pierceson replies solemnly.
As quick as the flip of a switch, Fox’s tone changes from sunny to somber. “What are your thoughts about this place closing?” she asks.
“I have good memories—and bad memories,” Pierceson replies. “I made a lot of friends, made a lot of friends—lot of enemies too.”
Schedule One Last Visit
The passengers on the 5 p.m. L90 Metro bus to Lorton are mostly silent. Some sit with their heads nodding deeply. Some watch over small children twisting impatiently in the plastic seats. Others stare blankly out the window at the sun setting behind the Jefferson Memorial.
Tracy Hooks, 41, is one of the few who bother to make conversation. She speaks softly as she chats with her neighbor, a woman about the same age with short blond hair named Linda Jones. Both are on their way to visit relatives. Hooks is going to surprise her husband, Terry Hooks, 41, an inmate in Maximum Security, who has spent the past six years serving time for an attempted robbery and gun convictions. It will be her last visit to Max, which is closing in the morning. “I saw him yesterday,” she explains. “But since he’s going through his little transition, I thought I’d pay him an extra visit.”
When the bus pulls up to Tower 1 at Lorton’s Central Facility, Hooks is the only one to stay on board for the ride over to Max. All the other women and children get out and form a line in front of the gate. “They make you stand out here in the cold and the rain,” says Jones.
Inside the visitors’ entrance to Max—a cinder-block shack spruced up with dusty maroon curtains—Hooks gets some bad news: Her husband, who works for a prison administrator, told her he’d still be here on Wednesday, helping his boss close up shop. But when she arrives, the guard tells her that he’s already been transferred.
“I was disappointed, after the long ride, not to see him,” Hooks tells me later. But she knows she’s still one of the lucky ones. Her husband is one of a handful of maximum-security inmates who, for now, has avoided being shipped to a far distant prison, instead going over the wall to a bed in the Central Facility until his parole hearing in March. Hooks, who writes her husband every day, will be able to see him again in a few weeks, after he completes an orientation period. Meanwhile, she takes comfort in a bit of good news: “[The guards] made me feel warm inside. They had a lot of good things to say about my husband. He’s gotten quiet, they say—calm.”
The corrections officers know Terry Hooks from his last stint at Lorton. Over the years, Tracy Hooks explains, he’s had several. The couple, who have been together since junior high school, married at the Youth Center while Terry Hooks was serving time there. “My kids’ birthdays mark every time he got out,” Tracy Hooks notes. The Hookses have three children; the oldest is 22, the youngest 12.
Hooks is counting on her husband coming home before Lorton closes. And she’s absolutely determined that he won’t go back to any prison ever again.
“I know my husband. He does better in an institution than he does in the streets. When he gets out, he’s not going to have any idle time. If that’s what he wants, he can go on his way,” Hooks says. “The [youngest] kids are almost getting to be in high school. We have to prepare for their future, for college. And we need time to spend our life together. We have to build now, and we don’t have a lot of time to work with.”
Round up the Prisoners
D.C. inmate Lomax Hughes hasn’t forgotten the day the DOC Emergency Response Team came for him in his dormitory, in May 1997. “I was swept from my dormitory so fast that my feet hardly touched the ground,” he recalls in a Feb. 13, 2001, letter. “I had no clue what was happening. I would learn later that I was being transferred from Lorton.”
Hughes landed at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NEOCC) in Youngstown, a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America. He is among the 8,000 inmates District corrections officials have shipped out from Lorton to federal and private prisons from Estancia, N.M., to Terre Haute, Ind., in the past four years, in response to overcrowding and in anticipation of Lorton’s closure, according to DOC spokesperson Darryl J. Madden.
Medium- and maximum-security D.C. inmates will ultimately land at federal lockups. The remaining, minimum-security inmates will eventually go to a private prison in Pennsylvania, which has yet to be built, and another private facility in North Carolina, which will open shortly. But while the BOP has been waiting for more beds to open up, federal and District officials have been playing a cross-country game of musical chairs with D.C. prisoners.
In the coming months, the pace of migration will only pick up. In keeping with the federal mandate to hand its sentenced felons off to the BOP, the District will end almost all of its contracts with private and state prisons by the end of the year. That means that BOP officials will have to make room not only for the 1,700 men who remain at Lorton, but for Hughes and the other 800 or so D.C. prisoners who are still incarcerated at NEOCC, as well as the 200 inmates in private prisons in Arizona and New Mexico. Eventually, the federal prison system will also have to absorb the 1,400 D.C. prisoners in Virginia state facilities such as Red Onion and Sussex II.
D.C. convicts used to refer to a prison term at Lorton as “sweet time.” For some, it was a home away from home; the place acquired a ruinous familiarity. At one point in the ’80s, it boasted a recidivism rate of 90 percent. With its aging buildings, poor food, and constant threat of violence, Lorton was, many former inmates insist, not much different from the impoverished neighborhoods and housing projects where they grew up. In fact, in some ways it was practically identical: It was not uncommon for two former neighbors to end up in the same dormitory, one as an inmate, the other as a corrections officer. Even more often, alliances from the street—and rivalries—carried over inside the cellblocks.
It’s not surprising to hear, then, that life at Lorton has done little to prepare D.C. prisoners for the move to new high-security prisons such as Sussex. Often, such facilities are Lorton’s exact opposite: sterile, impersonal, hi-tech, and highly controlled.
D.C. inmates headed for Sussex notice the change in their surroundings almost immediately. “We set out from Lorton on a two-and-a-half hour drive [to Waverly], at no point in time could we say a word, if so, we were punished by way of stun-gun,” recalls D.C. prisoner John Walker in Feb. 9, 2001, letter.
Once Walker arrived at Sussex, “it seemed as if every officer in the room was holding a stun gun,” he writes. “I was ordered to strip naked under the eyes of a camera—some guy is holding a video camera filming the strip process. I felt violated with men looking upon my privacy as if I was some strange creature.” His new home turned out to be a cell designed for one that had been modified for two.
Whenever Walker leaves his cell for recreation or meals, “guards with rifles monitor your every move from up on the roof top,” he writes. “They’re even posted in the chow hall”—a sight unheard of at Lorton, where most guards are unarmed. (Virginia is one of a handful of states in the country that allows corrections officers to carry guns inside its prisons.)
Less frightening, but still frustrating, are the Sussex policies on religious services, medical treatment, and the law library. Inmates are frequently on lockdown, prevented from attending religious services. An appointment to see a doctor costs $5—a week’s earnings for inmates—and prescriptions are $2. Access to the law library is by application only, through the warden.
And distance itself imposes a number of legal hurdles. Many D.C. prisoners are not close enough to make court appearances. Those trying to challenge their sentences or the terms of their parole on their own aren’t likely to find updated copies of the D.C. Code in out-of-state prison law libraries. And, prisoner advocates argue, inmates who want a lawyer have a hard time finding one.
But many Lorton alumni are not the least bit wistful about what they left behind. Lorton’s dormitories were “a cesspool for anything that can be done wrong in the dark,” recalls former inmate Audwin B. Wright.
Quakers came up with the idea of giving criminals a place to reflect on their sins, but around the turn of the last century, “penitentiaries” began giving way to reformatories such as Lorton, where inmates could become productive citizens through hard work. According to Mary Oakey’s 1993 history of the D.C. Jail and Lorton, Journey From the Gallows, Lorton’s founders had come to believe that traditional prisons with cells and high walls did little to stop prisoners from picking up where they had left off the second they returned to the streets.
William H. Whittaker, the first superintendent of the Occoquan workhouse at Lorton, exemplified the compassion Lorton’s founders felt for their charges. In his first annual report, he wrote: “No greater injustice can be meted out to an individual who is ‘down and out’ than to give him a short sentence of 15 to 30 days, at the end of which he is discharged, with no money, with a suit of clothes that 50 percent of the time is a disgrace to him and a detriment to his efforts in procuring a job…”
Even back then, critics mocked Lorton’s Golden Rule administration as soft on “vicious and habitual criminals.” But when felons began arriving, in 1916, Lorton’s administrators refused to put up bars. Instead, they placed them in the newly built Reformatory, which had cells, but for disciplinary purposes only. There wasn’t a true prison at Lorton until Maximum Security opened in 1930.
For prisoners such as Wright, as well as staff, Lorton’s original “open-air” experiment in rehabilitation had by the ’80s become a barely contained nightmare. And as recently as 1997, Grace Lopes, a court-appointed monitor, reported to U.S. District Judge June L. Green that Occoquan, then Lorton’s largest facility for medium-security inmates, had “deteriorated to a level of depravity that is unparalleled in its troubled history.”
“The staff and inmates have been subjected to an escalating and grossly unreasonable risk of harm,” Lopes wrote in her 136-page review of conditions there. “They are forced to work and live in an environment that is utterly dominated by the fear of uncontrolled violence and crime.”
Still, there are things D.C. prisoners miss about their old prison—with its campuslike layout and freedom of movement, which fostered a sense of normality newer prisons seem designed to squelch. “There was nothing like being able to see the sun rise in the morning,” Hughes writes, “and surrender your thoughts to the moon at night.”
Put Away the Inmate-Crossing Sign
For years, if you were driving down Route 123 by the Occoquan Facility, you’d pass a yellow pedestrian-crossing sign, showing the familiar silhouetted shape of a walking figure in black on a yellow background. If you weren’t driving too fast, you might notice, trailing from the pedestrian’s back leg, a ball and chain. (Some longtime employees at Lorton even refer to the sign as “the Ball and Chain.”) Maintenance workers have already taken it down, and it now sits inside the Facilities Management Office.
What was a cause of alarm to strangers passing through was always a joke among inmates and corrections officers, and little more than a wink for locals. Though an escapee took a local family hostage in 1972, those who live closest to the prison still maintain that no escapee would be fool enough to linger around one of their homes.
One Sunday afternoon about 10 years ago, Robert Mumford, whose property borders the prison’s on two sides, says he saw a couple of guys walk away from the Youth Center. “They came down the trail. We were having a church cookout. They got a Coke and a hot dog. They said their car broke down, but you could tell they had prison uniforms on,” recalls Mumford. “They asked where the gas station was. We gave them directions. Then about an hour or two later, two Jeeps come racing down. ‘You seen two guys?’ they asked. ‘Yup,’ I said. ‘Try the gas station.’”
Mumford says he has never worried much about the prospect of escapes. But just in case, he offers an incentive for escapees to leave his family alone: “We leave all the lights on in the two big garages, and overalls in the garage to make sure to keep a change of clothes so they keep going. The lady across the street has left clothes on her front porch, too.”
Oddly enough, those who live slightly farther away haven’t always been as cool about living close to a prison. “We used to drive really fast on that windy road [by Central Facility] so that no one would jump in,” recalls Erica Reid, who grew up near Lorton in the ’70s. “When that road was backed up with traffic, it was so creepy.”
Take the Bloodhounds for a Walk
When Thomas A. Wilkes Jr., a convicted murderer, didn’t show up for the midnight count on Christmas night 1996, corrections officers walked the perimeter of the Occoquan Facility to search for traces of an escape, such as blankets thrown over the razor wire or broken fencing. They found neither—which led them to suspect that Wilkes was hiding somewhere inside or had had inside help escaping.
There have always been escapes at Lorton. In 1911, the Fairfax Herald reported that a riot had broken out at the Reformatory and six inmates were missing. DOC officials don’t know exactly how many prisoners have successfully escaped from Lorton over its 90-year history, says spokesperson Madden. However, according to Washington Post reports, there were 20 escapes in the ’90s and 45 in the ’80s, including 18 in 1988 alone. But that figure pales in comparison with the 39 prisoners who breached the prison’s outer fence in 1972, according to Journey From the Gallows. Almost all the escapees over the years were eventually captured, including Daniel Dwight Lewis, whom police found in California in 1997. Lewis had escaped from Lorton in 1969, two months after he went in on burglary charges.
As early as the ’20s, when there was still no wall around the Reformatory or the workhouses, Lorton officials kept a half-dozen bloodhounds on hand to search for escapees, but the squad was disbanded in 1960. In recent years, calling in the hounds at Lorton has meant calling one man—Kevin Kocher.
Since 1987, Kocher has worked in facilities management at Lorton, doing construction jobs around the prison complex. But in his spare time, he is an expert bloodhound handler and instructor, as well as an amateur scholar of canine case law. Two years ago, Kocher and his hounds helped save a 3-year-old girl in Lancaster, Ohio. A neighbor had kidnapped her, sexually assaulted her, and left her to die in his attic.
In contrast to the Hollywood images of a pack of bloodhounds pulling and yelping through the woods, Kocher and his two dogs work silently; the dogs can tell him a lot with the turn of a head. “People used to look for positive indications—the nose down, pulling hard. I’m able to look at the dogs and understand not just the positive, but the negative as well,” Kocher explains. “Dogs don’t search in a straight line. They zigzag. When a dog makes a cutback, I know the scent is not in the other direction. He’s eliminated a direction of travel.”
When Kocher arrived at Occoquan that Christmas night four years ago, he let his lead dog for the night, Blackjack, take a whiff of one of Wilkes’ shirts and walked the bloodhound from gate to gate. At each gate, Blackjack made a circle, then jumped up on Kocher—just as Kocher had trained him to do once he had eliminated any trails in the immediate area.
When Blackjack reached the walk-in gate by Tower 7, just off Lorton Road, he took off down the hill to the greenhouse and cut up through the woods to the employee parking lot, where the scent ended—suggesting that Wilkes had left in a car. “That’s when I knew [Wilkes] had walked out of the gate,” says Kocher. Because only a corrections officer can wave someone out, “that meant one of the scariest things: We got a dirty officer.”
As it turned out, Blackjack had hit it right on the nose. Wilkes had struck up a friendship with Helen Butler, a corrections officer. That evening, Butler stood watch at the gate while the regular guard was on dinner break. Wilkes put on an officer’s jacket, and Butler waved to the guard in the tower to let him out.
Four days after his escape, Wilkes surrendered in St. Louis. He received nine months in a federal pen for the escape, on top of the 30-to-life sentence he was already serving for shooting his ex-girlfriend to death in 1990. Butler received a 12-month prison term for aiding and abetting an escapee.
Even when there wasn’t an escapee to track, Kocher still brought Blackjack and his other dogs—he has four total—to work to train them on the prison grounds. But they don’t come around Lorton much anymore. A year after Wilkes and Butler were convicted, Kocher received word that as part of the closing of Lorton, his bloodhound squad would no longer be needed. And just like the other staffers at Lorton, Kocher expects to be laid off later this year.
Fire the Chef
Regurgitated. That’s what lunch looks like on a recent afternoon at Lorton’s Central Facility. It’s supposed to be a mound of turkey salad, accompanied by two slices of bread and a pile of scalloped potatoes. Dessert is a jiggling block of dark-red Jell-O.
During feeding time, the dining hall is a sea of blue prison jumpsuits, and the sound of conversation can reach unbelievable decibels. The guards stand off to the side of the chow line, laughing and talking among themselves. After all, they don’t have to eat here. None of the prisoners sitting down to eat complain openly about the food, but no one is cleaning his plate, either.
What has become of Lorton’s once-renowned kitchen says a lot about what has become of the prison. Lorton’s progressive founders believed that the path to an inmate’s soul was through his stomach. “The idea was, if you give them enough to eat, lots of fresh air, and something to do, you could rehabilitate them,” says former Lorton administrator and prison historian Irma Clifton.
For years, Lorton inmates acquired a work ethic by raising cattle, hogs, turkeys, and chickens, growing their own fruits and vegetables, and milking their own cows on the prison’s 1,200-acre farm. Lorton’s hog plant was once one of the largest in the country, producing 170,000 pounds of pork a year.
Prisoners at Lorton also used to bake their own bread and cook their own meals. According to a 1933 story in the Washington Star, a home-grown dinner might consist of cantaloupe, fried chicken, beets, beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and ice cream cake. In Journey From the Gallows, Oakey notes that inmates serving 30-day sentences at Lorton could gain as much as 18 pounds. But if an inmate refused to work or talked back to an officer, prison officials punished him with several days of bread and water.
By the ’60s, however, the pork chops on inmates’ plates came from elsewhere, as did the vegetables. Only the dairy portion of the farm remained, producing milk for the prison as well as District public-school kids. (The dairy closed in 1998.) Lorton’s rehabilitative focus shifted from barns to books—until a few years ago, a prisoner at Lorton could earn not only a GED but also a college degree, at the University of the District of Columbia extension inside the Central Facility. Inmates still worked in the kitchen, but the quality of the food declined, and it soon joined the list of inmate grievances, becoming an oft-cited cause for uprisings—of which there have been about a dozen in the past 40 years.
Then, in September 1996, in a cost-cutting move, the DOC contracted with Aramark, the huge food-facilities-management company, to prepare food for the prison staff and the prisoners.
“For the first couple of days, the food was delicious. It was like we were at IHOP or something. But that stopped and now it’s dreadful,” writes Lee Jr., an inmate at Central, who declines to reveal his full name for fear he would ruin his upcoming shot at parole. Now 69, he has been through Lorton more than once since the late ’60s. “As a young man in prison, I used to dream of beautiful women,” he writes. “Now I dream of food.”
Aramark stuck a fork in the fried chicken and instituted “portion control” lest the inmates get too plump. A recent menu describes Monday’s lunch as “2 ounces of bologna,” “a half ounce of cheese,” and “two slices of whole wheat bread,” with “three quarters of a cup of shredded lettuce and onions” and “a half ounce of Italian dressing.” Friday dinner is a “Fish Square,” which Lee Jr. describes as “a few flakes of fish mixed directly into batter.” Other meals feature “Chicken Pattie” and “Cold Turkey Roll and Cheese.”
Inmate complaints haven’t gone completely unnoticed. In a March 5, 1998, letter to DOC officials, Norm Miller, then Aramark’s vice president of operations, promised several changes in the monthly menu, including “reduced cold cut meals (bologna) from 5 times to 2 times,” and “decreased casseroles from 17 times to 9 times.”
Rescue Any Artifacts
Ray Morgan and Steve Murray are not your typical art collectors. For years, the two men, both members of the Lorton Facilities Management crew, have done everything from fixing broken windows to re-roofing entire buildings and even forging their own gears for the old coal-fired boilers that used to power the Occoquan workhouse—anything to keep the place going. Some jobs they didn’t foresee. For instance, when a beanpole of an inmate once slipped his way out of his cell through a tray hole, Murray had to weld additional bars on all the lockdown cells at Occoquan so that no one could ferret his way out again.
Now, in the course of closing up the Minimum and Medium Security Facilities, as well as the Youth Center, Murray, Morgan, and their colleagues have stumbled across various products of inmate ingenuity, from paintings, murals, and shanks to dope pipes made of hollowed-out chicken bones. DOC Director Washington is determined to preserve remnants of Lorton’s past. So Murray catalogues each item before it is stored away.
Morgan has collected all of the finds in a shipping container behind the Facilities Management Office on Silverbrook Road. A cast-steel hog trough—a recent score—from the long-defunct hog ranch sits outside the door next to a Singer sewing machine that looks like a relic from the Triangle Shirt Factory fire. Inside the container, propped on top of any available surface, are trophies from the days when inmates from each facility competed against each other in baseball, basketball, and football. Leaning against the wall are an old millstone and chicken hooks from the old chicken farm. On the opposite wall is a black metal panel, thick as a safe door, labeled “GE” (for General Electric), with three huge meters, a crank, and a big black lever. Morgan taps it proudly. “[The D.C. Archivist] has the electric chair,” he says, “but I have the control panel”—or the “buzz board,” as he likes to call it.
The control panel for “Old Sparky” is here despite the fact that there were never any executions at Lorton. Several unclaimed bodies of executed prisoners rest in “Stoney Lonesome,” the inmate graveyard off Ox Road. But those men met their ends at the old D.C. Jail.
From 1928 through the late ’50s, 46 men died in the District’s electric chair, according to Oakey. For a time, before they got around to building a separate death house at the jail, city corrections officials held executions in the inmates’ dining hall. When an execution took place, they simply moved the tables and chairs to make way for the electric chair. When the execution was over, they readied the room for lunch, storing the chair in a nearby alcove beneath a sheet of white muslin.
When District officials tore down the old jail, the electric chair and its control panel found their way to Lorton, where Clifton briefly ran a small museum. After it closed, most of the museum’s contents remained at Lorton, except for the chair.
A few feet from the control panel, a stack of inmate paintings leans against the back wall of the container. There are a gently rendered portrait of a young woman in a blue sweater by Eugene J.X. Foggie and a larger, darker piece featuring a British flag, a crown (“symbolizing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,” explains Murray), a sword, and a foreboding black castle. Another piece reads: “The Black Man’s First Priority is to put God, himself, friends, family, goals, happiness, responsibilities in their proper perspective! or Be discombobulated.”
But as examples of inmate talent, Morgan and Murray say, these are nothing. The best stuff, these connoisseurs of jailhouse art insist, is still on the walls at Occoquan and the Youth Center, especially in the lockdown cells, where inmates had the most time on their hands. According to Murray, some of the cells are covered with elaborate depictions of life on the streets of D.C.
Unfortunately, no one else may get to see what Murray’s talking about. Since both facilities passed into the hands of the GSA, they’re off-limits to the public. Lorton officials considered salvaging the art by cutting away pieces of the walls, like hieroglyphic-covered blocks from some Egyptian tomb, but that plan wasn’t feasible. So it will be up to Fairfax County officials to decide the fate of the artwork.
Sign Up for the Retiree Luncheon
On the outside, the McDonald’s off Route 1 in Woodbridge, Va., looks like any other suburban outpost of the ubiquitous fast-food chain. But inside, the atmosphere is more like a cozy neighborhood diner.
Every weekday morning around 9 a.m., a handful of former Lorton employees gather by the window. They began to congregate here a few years ago, their numbers padded by other longtime residents who came just to hear the stories. The small talk lasts as long as it takes them to finish their cups of coffee. Thanks to Maria, who takes orders at the counter, that can be quite a while. When business is slow, she comes around with a pot of coffee and tops off each man’s Styrofoam cup.
“Who ran the orchard again—what was his name?” asks Leon “Moose” Musselman, his face slightly obscured by a green camouflage cap, glasses, and a gray mustache shaped like the inverse of the Golden Arches. Musselman started working at Lorton, bringing coal from the railroad to the Occoquan and Central Facilities, in 1960. He retired in 1980.
“Tomato Welch,” shoots back the fellow sitting across from Musselman, who sports a faded “Bob’s Country Store” baseball hat. His name is Herman Cave.
“What was his first name?” Musselman asks.
“I don’t know. I just knew him as To-mate-tuh!” Cave replies with a hearty chuckle.
One of Cave’s first jobs when he started working at Lorton, in 1948, was in the orchards. By the time he retired, in 1977, as a records examiner, he had held several other positions. For a while, he picked up inmates from the D.C. Jail and brought them down to Lorton. He liked it for the most part, except for once a week, when he had to bring the women down from the jail to Lorton. “They would do terrible things to my bus,” he says of his female charges. But when pressed, he refuses to go into detail, at least not in an eating establishment.
The Lorton that Cave and Musselman recall mostly with fondness was not quite like the one corrections staff and District residents have come to know in recent years. For one thing, though there had been female inmates at Lorton since 1912 (suffragettes who picketed the White House were held there in 1917), there were no female officers in the male facilities until 1974, and there was no policy against sexual harassment until 1995, after female employees filed a class-action lawsuit against the department, claiming that supervisors and co-workers had kissed, pinched, and grabbed them, as well as asked for sex. In 1997, the city settled the case for $8 million.
In Cave’s day, officers and religious volunteers didn’t moonlight in crime, either—or if they did, they didn’t get caught, unlike the 23 corrections officers police arrested in 1993 for smuggling drugs to inmates for money, or the 38 individuals posing as Muslim religious volunteers police charged in 1996 with sneaking drugs and prostitutes into Lorton. That same year, maximum-security inmate Keith Gaffney was convicted of running a heroin-distribution ring from his cell that employed not only other inmates but corrections officers as well.
When Leon Parker started at Lorton as a corrections officer, in 1939, for $1,500 a year, Lorton was a prized place to work. “Jobs were scarce back then. It was very competitive. You had to take an exam,” he recalls.
Though the District was not far away, jobs in Washington were even harder to come by, he explains, because people from across the Depression-wracked country flocked there for a shot at a steady government paycheck. Before Parker retired, in 1972, as assistant superintendent at the Youth Center, he served as captain in charge of security for a time. “If there was a problem, the inmates had to go see the captain,” says Cave, pointing at Parker, who turned 86 the day before. When asked if the inmates were difficult to deal with, Parker replies slyly, “They weren’t difficult to me.”
Every six months, Parker, Musselman, and Cave go across the road to the Capitol Grill and Buffet for a luncheon gathering of former Lorton employees. About 100 familiar faces show up, some coming from as far away as North Carolina. But Parker notes that in recent years, attendance has been dwindling: “The newer retirees don’t come like the old ones do. And every time now, they call out a list of the deceased.”
Register the Place as a Historic Site
The Feb. 6 gathering of the Mason Neck Citizens Association in Gunston Hall in Mason Neck, Va., is packed. Women in riding pants mix with off-duty corrections officers and retirees. Some have come to put in their two cents about the need for a separate horse trail by the bike trail that runs along Gunston Road. Others have come to learn about volunteer opportunities in Mason Neck State Park. And almost everyone stays to hear local resident Irma Clifton lecture on the history of the neighboring town of Lorton.
With slides of old photographs, Clifton introduces Joseph Plaskett, the native of Lorton Valley, England, who gave the town its name in 1875, when he opened the Lorton Valley Post Office. It was just a rural farming community when “something happened around the turn of the century that changed Lorton forever,” Clifton says. “And that was that Lorton was chosen as the site for a prison.”
The first inmates—an assortment of bootleggers and horse thieves—arrived in 1910 by barge from the 9th Street Wharf. They built the workhouses and the Reformatory first out of wood, then out of bricks, which they eventually could produce at a rate of 40,000 a day from Lorton’s 10 brick kilns. (Brick-making was phased out in 1966.)
Clifton was born close to the Reformatory, on Silverbrook Road. “I remember as a little girl being able to hear the noise from the [Reformatory] yard. I used to walk in and watch the inmates play baseball,” she says over lunch at a local Italian place where the owners know her by name. “The grounds were beautiful. There were raised flower beds with pansies of different colors.” Her uncle worked at the prison for a time, as did her siblings. Clifton started there in 1967 in the supply office.
Even before she knew the prison was closing, Clifton spent her free time collecting bits of Lorton’s history for posterity. She put together a small museum in what, at the time, was the training academy. When inmates had to move into that building, the museum lost out to more pressing prison needs and the memorabilia Clifton salvaged went into storage.
Clifton retired from Lorton in 1993 but remained its self-appointed historian. She is currently working on applications to designate several buildings at Lorton as state and national historical sites, although such status won’t necessarily save them from destruction. Fairfax County officials will ultimately decide what to keep and what to tear down.
But last year, a study commissioned by the GSA bolstered Lorton’s chances of preservation by recommending that 242 of its 452 structures and 552 acres become a historic district. Occoquan, Central Facility, and Max will likely remain, but not the Youth Center or the Minimum Security Facility. The chapel, which is less than 50 years old, doesn’t qualify for preservation, either, even though inmates designed and built it. (An inmate even posed for the sculpture of Jesus on the giant crucifix inside.) But, according to the chaplain, the Rev. Alfred Minor, local congregations are already eyeing it for new digs. Whoever occupies it 60 years from now will get to open the time capsule embedded in the wall near the chapel entrance.
At least one building will likely become home to a Lorton prison museum, curated by Clifton. The American Correctional Association is also looking at Maximum Security as a potential site for its museum. And Gary Powers Jr., the son of the U-2 pilot who was shot down by the Soviets in 1960, is looking at a Nike missile site, part of which lies just under the grounds of Minimum Security, as a possible site for his planned Cold War museum.
Lorton, Clifton hopes, will become just like Alcatraz—financially, that is. (It costs $12.25 for a round-trip ferry ride to the infamous San Francisco prison and a two-and-a-half hour audio-guided tour of “the Rock.”) “Maybe people will pay to get their pictures taken behind bars,” she muses—or, better yet, maybe some Hollywood studio will pay to film here. But so far, most of the proposals for reusing any remaining buildings at Lorton are educational or cultural, “like a giant Torpedo Factory,” Clifton says, referring to the former munitions plant on the Alexandria waterfront that is now an arts center. Clifton has her own ideas about how to reuse some of the old dormitories. Where inmates once slept, she envisions Internet start-up geeks typing code between Foosball breaks.
Cut Down the Concertina Wire
The rows of wire and fence around the various Lorton facilities are like layers of sediment, each marking a different era in the prison’s history. When Lorton’s mission was to give each prisoner fresh air and a day’s work, there were no fences around the workhouses or the Reformatory. Only Max had a wall. But in the ’70s, as concern grew over unrest and escapes, and local politicians began pressing for Lorton’s closure, the fences rose.
Eventually, a 12-foot-high, double chain-link fence surrounded the Youth Center and Occoquan, and a single 8-foot-high fence wound its way around Minimum Security. In the ’80s, prison officials added short-blade steel razor wire, which features quarter-inch blades an inch apart jutting out on either side of the wire. But after years of exposure to the elements, the razor wire rusted, losing its ability to snag cloth and cut flesh. So starting in the early ’90s, prison officials replaced the old wire with coils of stainless-steel and aluminum long-blade razor wire—also called concertina wire—with 2-inch-wide blades on each side. Long-blade razor wire is the standard used by most prisons today, because it is extremely difficult to cut. And it’s designed to collapse around anyone who tries to climb over it. Once snagged, would-be escapees must be cut out.
Of course, inmates have found ways of avoiding the razor wire altogether. In 1996, two prisoners escaped from Max in a trash truck. They were found at the landfill. (One of them had broken his leg either in the truck or as he spilled into a ditch.) Others have gone through storm drains. Some have even tried to jump into the parking lot from the roof of the prison chapel, which is just inside Central’s perimeter fence.
Removing razor wire is a dangerous and costly process, the work of demolition experts. The GSA hired Wrecking Corporation of America, St. Louis, Inc., which, despite its name, is based in Alexandria, to do the job at Lorton. Wrecking Corporation crews began working in December. So far, contractors have removed 80,930 linear feet of razor wire and 469,240 feet of barbed wire. However, one strand of razor wire remains at Minimum Security, where the fence is lowest, just in case anyone tries to break in. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.