City Paper is not for tourists
In a back corner of Lorton Prison’s Maximum Security section, snug against a 25-foot-high wall, sits a concrete box that looks like a mobile home that has ossified into a tomb. Officially called the Control Cells Unit, it’s known as “the Hole” to the people who pass endless days and nights there. The Hole is comprised of seven isolation cells, where inmates are locked up all but an hour a day. They are allowed no personal possessions, only legal or religious materialostensibly to learn more about their present imprisonment or future salvation. But few ever take advantage of this opportunity for leisurely reading. Here in the prison’s ultimate confinement, there’s nothing for them to do except listen to the trucks rumble back and forth through the delivery entrance, the gateway to freedom just outside their cells.
The Hole is the end of the line at the end of the line. It’s a place where the baddest boys go when they really screw up behind bars: kill a fellow prisoner, assault a guard, or try to escape. Some are occasionally sent here for their own protection, but most go to the Hole because they’re unruly and unrepentant rebels and the prison system simply can’t handle them.
“This is the last stop,” says Cpl. O.T. Clegg, who guards the Hole. A large, powerfully built man with a salt-and-pepper Afro and a deep, booming voice, Clegg has been sitting on the rim of the Hole for years. On this warm spring morning, he’s camped just outside it in a chair, enjoying the nice weather. During the winter and summer, this isn’t such a comfortable perch; besides the severe temperatures, in the hot months the stench from the nearby landfill often settles on the prison like a fog.
Inside the cramped makeshift office that Clegg must stoop to enter, a Run-DMC song blares from a tiny radio hung on a nail. Clegg reads from a clipboard that lists the prisoners and the crimes that exiled them to the Hole. There are presently three “total separation” inmates staying here: One murdered a co-defendant in his cell; the others were involved in lesser fracases. Back in the dark, dank Hole, there’s not a peep from the men; they’re not allowed to talk to each other. “But they can hear everything that goes on out here,” shouts Clegg over the music.
Ducking back out through the doorway, Clegg stretches in the sunshine, a More menthol dangling from his mouth. “This is probably the most dangerous penitentiary in the country,” he says matter-of-factly, with a faint hint of pride. Instead of spouting statistics to prove his point, he rolls up a sleeve of his blue uniform shirt. His massive biceps are covered with scarsraised squiggles that resemble a tangle of pinkish worms. He points to a round one, like a welt that never properly healed. “That was a bullet,” he explains, “but these others come from here, from fighting convicts. They make their own weapons, you know.”
He shows off a particularly nasty scar on his arm, a gory curlicue he seems to regard as a mark of valor. “That one was from when I got stabbed by a claw hammer,” he says, rubbing the spot as if it were an old friend. “That was from all the fighting when all the ‘courageous’ officers decided to abandon their posts,” he adds. There was a big riot back in ’84, and Clegg was left to fend for himself when his fellow guards ran for cover.
Clegg stares at the prison’s massive brick wall a few feet away, and straightens out his sleeve. “Nobody behind this wall has been back here as long as I have,” he says. “Most of these people I’ve raised in the last 19 yearsthey come and goand you develop a certain rapport.”
Unlike state prisons, which farm out prisoners to various institutions, Lorton serves as the sole repository for most District convicts, making it a sort of reunion place for D.C.’s friends and enemies, and that goes for guards as well as prisoners. “They all come down here,” says Clegg. “They got their brothers, their cousins, and all the neighborhood bullies, and everybody gets reacquainted.”
Old feuds are settled here behind bars, and new wars erupt on a daily basis. It speaks volumes about Lorton’s violent culture that many prisoners consider the Hole a sort of vacation from the stress of prison life out in the population.
A truck honks outside the steel gate of the delivery entrance, and Clegg prepares for a routine check. Because of budget cuts, he works the gate while also guarding the Hole. He’s used to the layout at Maximum Security, but that doesn’t mean he has grown to like its grave, lockdown architecture. “I prefer an open compoundit’s easier on officers like myself. There’s more contact with the residents. See, people come to Max because they were discipline problems at every other facility in this system. In here, everybody’s in a cageit breeds tension.”
The cage’s ill effects go both ways, working on guards as well as inmates. According to Clegg, the closed world of Lortonwhich severely limits an officer’s powersis so psychologically demanding that even former D.C. cops who come down here to work can’t take it. “We’ve had quite a few MPDs come through here, but they can’t adjust. A street cop is used to backing off of a situation and calling for help, and when the backup comes, then they close in. And they have their weapons. But in here, your only weapons are your mind and your physical capabilities.”
Fortunately for Clegg, there haven’t been any major riots in years, and assaults have been down. Not long ago, anarchy reigned here: Between 1990 and ’94, Lorton guards were attacked by prisoners 379 times.
Recently, Lorton has been known more for its corrupt guards than its warring prisoners. Sexual harassment cases and criminal convictions have plagued the prison and thinned its guards’ ranks. Budget cuts have torn down the support staff and rehabilitative programsthe services that allow a prison to at least mimic a social community. The limited funds must now cover the most basic security needs, and Lorton has been gutted to the bare essentials of the penal duality: prisoners and guards.
Many of the remaining guards are die-hards, veteran officers like Clegg who have survived the myriad purges and scandals and assaults. These guards have become Lorton’s other prisoners, trapped on a sinking ship along with those they oversee. They work among criminals banished from D.C.’s mean streets to the even meaner cellblocks and dorms of Lorton. Unarmed (except for battered walkie-talkies that often malfunction) and always severely outmanned, they see themselves as law enforcement’s forgotten stepchildren, doing a dangerous job that is hidden down in Virginia because that’s the way the city likes it.
Behind the walls, guards take guff from the inmates and management alike; outside, they carry the stigma of being guards at Lorton, the prison nobody wants.
“We face the innuendo; we face the physical threats on a daily basis,” says Cpl. Jack Rosser, who has worked at Maximum Security since 1990. “We are down here fighting for our jobs, fighting to keep the Lorton prison system where it is.”
Even as officials move to privatize and eventually close the place, Lorton’s guards remain stubbornly faithful to their hellhole in southern Fairfax County.
At Lorton Maximum Security, you don’t just do hard time, you go back in time. Way, way back.
Inside the Wall, as inmates call it, the clock stopped long ago. The prison was built in the 1920s and ’30s, but the quasi-Colonial architecture seems to backdate the place by centuries rather than mere decades.
The low-slung, weathered brick buildings boast graceful archways and other ornate flourishes that hark back to another age; the modern preference for verticality and functional design is unknown here. The buildings squat in the shadow of 25-foot-high, 4-foot-thick crumbling brick walls, crowned by a quartet of towers. More bulky than tall, the walls bring to mind the ramparts of a fortress instead of a 20th-century penitentiary.
From inside, the archaic, deserted scene is almost quaint, until you spot the rifles pointing from the towers and the razor wire that rings the place. On first impression, Lorton looks like a historical landmark taken hostage: It’s as if Jefferson’s Academical Village had been stripped of its white columns and remodeled into some sort of sinister Southern Gothic gulag.
The Wall is just one of the aged, decrepit facilities on the sprawling 3,000-acre reservation. Most were built in the early part of the century; they include Central, a medium-security compound known as the Hill; Occoquan, a high-medium pen known as the Quack; and the Youth Center, which now houses adult felons as well as youths. More than 6,000 prisoners call Lorton home, everyone from murderers to misdemeanor violators. Many have spent years here, literally growing up at Lorton; they pass through the various institutions the way children move through a school system.
Maximum’s four walls squeeze its 10-acre area into a claustrophobic quadrangle, where the cellblocks house 600 of D.C.’s most dangerous convicts. Dead center is a courtyard, a village green of freshly mowed grass and asphalt walkways. Standing here on a bright May morning, the first thing you notice is how quiet it is. The eerie ambience does not connote tranquilityit’s a byproduct of mass confinement. Nearly all the prisoners spend 23 hours every day locked in their cells. The only sound out here is the rattling of chains and cuffs as escort guards make their rounds; a lawyer silently scuttles across the trim lawn, heading for
an appointment with a prisoner.
Framed by the oppressive brick and the indifferent sky, the bare courtyard presents the gloomiest, loneliest spot imaginablethe perfect place for a gallows. If the District ever brought back the death penaltyas Mayor Marion Barry recently recommendedit would have a hard time finding a more fitting setting than right here. A public execution would require little in the way of new construction, just a scaffold and some bleachers from the nearby gym. There are several cop killers currently incarcerated who many want to see die for their crimes. There’s little doubt the event would draw a crowd, and dignitaries and rabble alike could gawk at the spectacle.
Of course, it’s not very likely that the death penalty will ever be reinstated in the District, and public executions happen only in the dreams of TV network executives.
Besides, Lorton officials probably couldn’t afford to buy the hangman’s rope. If that seems like an exaggerationas far-fetched as the return of the death penaltyconsider what stands in the courtyard instead: an empty flagpole. No faded Stars and Stripes, not even a tattered D.C. banner.
“We had a rough winter,” explains Rosser, who has endured many such bleak seasons inside the Wall. “We’re going to get a flag, but there are other priorities here than a flag right now.”
He points beyond the back wall, gesturing toward a new subdivision called Silverbrook. Just across the road from Max, the ritzy neighborhood is the vanguard of the development that now surrounds the prison. “Our first priority is protecting those citizens, the ones closest to this institution,” he says. “Our No. 1 goal above all is to keep any of these guys in here from getting beyond that wall.” The prison’s new neighbors are increasingly voicing their fears about that very issue, especially after a recent escapee spent a night outside the prison sleeping in a suburbanite’s car, right in the driveway.
A seven-year veteran behind the Wall, the 39-year-old Rosser has no scars to bare, at least not physical ones. In fact, Rosser seems the inverse of the stereotypical burned-out, malicious guard, a term he and his cohorts despise. Calling them “guards” is akin to calling a cop a pig: They’re corrections officers. A chubby charmer and mesmerizing talker, Rosser is fond of Fats Wallerish rolls of the eyes and an affected hoity-toity delivery to punctuate his often ironic comments on what it means to be a guard at the most maligned prison anywhere.
“This is the toughest beat in town,” he says, tapping his black shoe on the ground. “The victim sees the criminal for a moment during the crimein a flash, usually. The investigators and police may see him for an hour when they book him and bring him to trial. If they get it to court, the judge may see him for a week off and on. When the judge sentences him, we get to see him for 20-to-life.”
That was a tough enough job a few years ago, when Rosser became a guard. The prison’s lack of resources has jeopardized not only its already bleak future but its day-to-day operations. If the Department of Public Works suffers cutbacks, some potholes might not get fixed, but when the corrections system is defunded, chaos is bound to follow. Right now, prison officials say that Lorton is a disaster in the making.
The lack of a flag is indeed the least of Lorton’s problems. Unlike its inmates, the prison complex is on death row. Overcrowding, inadequate facilities, etc.: Lorton suffers from the usual problems that afflict prisons nationwide, but its predicament is nonetheless unique. Most cities don’t have to run their own jails; that is usually the state’s job. The District’s financial woes have landed with a great deal of weight on Lorton, devastating a vulnerable institution whose only constituency is convicted felons.
In fact, Lorton has been on the skids for years. A decade ago, a massive influx of drug offenders created a population that has overwhelmed the place ever since. In the ’80s, several large-scale riots punctuated a routine of everyday assaults and stabbings. Its ultraviolent culture made it a tough place to survive for inmates and officers alike, and corruption was rampant on both sides of the bars. In the early ’90s, dozens of guards were busted for seemingly every crime short of murderfrom selling crack to taking bribes to running prostitution rings.
In Lorton, family visitation meant smuggling drugs via Pampers and Grandma’s baked goods. Here, no scam was too outrageous. Witness the visiting “religious” groups that shunned their scheduled prayer meetings to film sexcapadesfor videotapes later sold to prisoners. In between numerous inmate escapes, Lorton made its presence felt in the community in other ways, occasionally leaking massive sewage spills into the nearby Occoquan River. More recently, Lorton has wrestled with a slew of sexual harassment cases, further damaging its reputation as a viable, or even salvageable, institution.
It’s small wonder that “Close Lorton” has long been a battle cry in these parts.
In the time-honored tradition of D.C.-bashing, Northern Virginia politicians have made it clear that they want the prison not only shut down but wiped off the map. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Fairfax) and Sen. John Warner (R), among others, have tried for years to shut down the complex. Now the legions of anti-Lortonites extend from Capitol Hill to Richmond. Virginia Attorney General Jim Gilmore, running in the ’97 campaign for governor, rails against Lorton with fanatical zeal; he has even filed suits claiming it is illegal for the District to house its prisoners in Virginia at all. In the rant of a preacher, Gilmore and his cohorts regard Lorton as an infectious disease threatening the health of the Old Dominion.
Throughout this decline, Lorton has been suffering from a constant lack of funds. It operates on a $240-million budget, which is only a tad more than a decade ago. Some prisoners have been shipped out to privatized prisons; 900 headed to an Ohio prison last month, but it will probably provide only temporary relief. Corrections officials expect a new influx, as D.C.’s “zero tolerance” crime initiatives begin to take effect. Even as the District’s police force and fire protection are enjoying a financial renaissance, there is no interest in allocating money to the D.C. Department of Corrections. Barry has been mum on the question. The former jailbird talked about prisons a lot before he was re-elected, making promises when there was still a trace of prison sweat on him. But now that he’s back in the air-conditioned halls of government, he could care less.
And so, even as prison-industry bigwigs discuss Lorton in the past tense, and plans for privatizing corrections proceed, Lorton itself festers, invoked in the present only when politicians need a whipping boy. Prisons are like landfills: You have to have them, but nobody wants them anywhere near their back yard.
“We’re out of sight, out of mind,” says D.C. Corrections Director Margaret Moore, lamenting that her department is always slighted come budget time. “Over the past three years, we have had 200 to 300 corrections officer vacancies. That’s unconscionable. If there were 200 vacancies in the police and fire department, the citizens and officials of this city would not stand for it.”
Moore says the situation has reached a “crisis level,” a term often invoked by Lorton officials in recent years. “Due to lack of resources, we are critically overcrowded and dangerously understaffed, and our officers are at risk,” she says. “[The facilities are] woefully inadequate for housing young, violence-prone inmates.”
The former Lorton Reformatory has become a massive holding pen ready to explode: What began in 1910 as a rehabilitation retreat for D.C. convicts in rural Northern Virginia has degenerated into a penal colony, a Devil’s Island that timeand neglecthas left dangerously behind.
Once you take the Lorton exit off Interstate 95, you pass a brand-new Best Western hotel and an even newer sprawl of condos and town houses. After a stoplight, apparently built exclusively for the newcomers to begin their daily commutes, you head south down a winding, two-lane country road. Just past a tumble-down brick entrance, now chained off and leading into brambles, you enter a landscape of rolling hills and farmland dotted with grazing cows.
You have now entered the Lorton prison complex, one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in Northern Virginia. Driving through this scenic real estate, it’s no wonder local politicians are obsessed with shutting down Lorton for good: A bunch of swanky new residential or office developments would fit nicely here, and the undulating land seems to be begging for a golf course. One longtime local has already beaten would-be developers to the punch in naming the properties: In his front yard, he displays a homemade sign that proclaims “Prison View Estate.”
This area was wilderness in 1910, when the federal government bought it at $18 an acre for District officials to use for a progressive experiment in penal reform. Back then, the 20-mile stretch to Washington was considered a vast distance, and there were no roads to the remote hamlet of Lorton. The first inmates, a motley crew of 29, made the trip in a barge down the Potomac from D.C. to the banks of the Occoquan, where they lived in tents while they built their own workhouse.
In an era of Southern chain gangs and brutal penitentiaries, Lorton began as a noble attempt to follow the model of the Industrial Farm Movement thriving up north. The idea was that these menmostly vagrants, drunks, and petty thievescould be rehabilitated through hard work and fresh air. Here they would learn to milk cows, raise crops, and learn trades. It was to be a prison without walls, a sanctuary for criminals to get a second chance.
From the start, there were numerous escapes and even a few riots, but overall the experiment succeeded on a small scale. A brick factory on the Occoquan provided the materials for expansion; officials soon added a woman’s workhouse, which gained brief national fame as the site where female suffragists were held in the late ’10s. But by the ’20s, the exploding inmate population at the D.C. Jail forced the Lorton experiment to expand its purpose and focus; it soon constructed facilities for felons, including the walled penitentiary.
Even so, the emphasis on rehabilitation remainedthus the name of the complex, Lorton Reformatory. By the ’40s, the newly formed D.C. Department of Corrections had built a facility exclusively for alcoholics and housed some 300 narcotics addicts in the prison population.
The final blossoming of the prison’s reform zeal was the establishment of the Youth Center. The driving force was the Federal Youth Corrections Act of 1950, an attempt to address widespread juvenile delinquency in the years following World War II. Under special sentencing guidelines, young offenders (18-22) could pull short time in their own facilities, where they could acquire a trade or an education, and have their criminal records expunged. The Lorton Youth Center opened in 1960; it was an open-dorm facility designed to resemble a college campus. Inmates wore suits and ties and carried booklets entitled “So We All Understand.” An excerpt gives a glimpse of the center’s lofty goals: “As to your offensethat is in the past. It’s spilled milk. You come here clean. As behavioral scientists we won’t hold past mistakes against you. We know that many people flocking into institutions have been sinned against as much, in some cases, as they have defaulted.”
These days, Lorton prisoners barely receive adequate food and clothing, much less the tender care of “behavioral scientists.” But back then it was not an empty boast. Lorton offered a genuine second chance, if not for complete redemption, then at least for a decent job. The dairy farm thrived, and inmates also worked in other onsite industries, including a printing plant and a furniture factory. By 1956, Lorton’s prison businesses produced more than $1 million in goods a year. Criminal-justice experts from around the world came to Lorton to observe this example of a progressive prison that really worked.
But Lorton’s status as an exemplar didn’t hold for long, and by the ’50s Lorton was suffering from some of the same problems it has today. As Mary Oakey notes in her history of D.C. corrections, Journey From the Gallows, “It was the severe overcrowding and lack of sufficient personnel to properly man all post assignments that were partially to blame for the death of the first correctional officer in the history of the Reformatory to be killed in the line of duty.” In February 1958, a guard was slain trying to break up a fight between two inmates; they killed him with a chair, a knife, and a razor.
Lorton had entered the modern era, despite its good intentions, its edifying architecture, and its clean country air. And it wasn’t just random, isolated violence but civic unrest that finally came to roost at the prison. In 1963, more than 50 Black Muslim inmates rioted at the Youth Center, causing $7,000 worth of damage but no deaths. A series of riots in 1968, partly triggered by the Martin Luther King assassination, further revealed the deteriorating conditions at Lorton. By the early ’70s, Northern Virginia politicians had begun clamoring for an overhaul of the prison, citing it as a safety risk to citizens.
Since then, of course, things have only gotten worse. Lorton has assumed almost mythic status as the prison from hell, the grim image of its brick towers a staple of local news broadcasts every time there’s an escape or incident. It doesn’t seem to matter what corrections officials try to do. More fences have gone up, more walls, more razor wireever more barriers draping the countryside. There’s never enough money, and there are always too many inmates. Perhaps the citizens around the place sense that there will come a time when no wallno matter how highwill be able to contain Lorton.
Prison officials scramble to find space for incoming prisoners, making a mishmash of the formerly rigid separation of different types of inmates in different facilities. In the Youth Center, adult felons now walk the grounds alongside teens; murderers recess next to deadbeat dads or some unlucky stiff doing a month on a misdemeanor charge, sent to Lorton due to overcrowding at D.C. Jail. In the Occoquan facility, convicted killers are crammed together into the former alcohol-rehab center. Because of this volatile mix of high-risk prisoners and inadequate security, the Quack is considered the most dangerous joint in Lorton.
It’s all the more ironic, then, that Lorton’s newest building, a modular facility that housed pretrial detainees, has been closed for more than a year. Officials say they don’t have the funds to staff the place, so Lorton’s most modern facility sits empty as others fill to capacity.
The dream of reform has been deferred, if not completely snuffed out. Educational and vocational programs are down to a minimum, leaving hordes of prisoners as idle as the dairy cows; there’s nothing to do but brood until parole comes. In fact, Moore contends that many cons are now leaving Lorton angrier and more violent than when they arrived. “These same aggressive gang-bangers arrested on the streets of Washington are the individuals being brought into my system,” she says. “They don’t change; they just take out there aggressions here. We have the wrong kind of inmate in the wrong kind of housing.”
About a mile from the Wall, the Youth Center sits in a vast pit next to the former county landfill and down the road from the prison’s dairy farm. The smell of cow dung fills the air, and vultures hover over the desolate 50-acre campus, which features a football field and running track. The gap-windowed, ramshackle dormitories don’t look much different from the D.C. projects from which many of these inmates hail. Overcrowded with adult felons as well as teens, the Youth Center is a sort of parody of its original inception; even so, there are successes hidden in its recesses.
Just a decade ago, the place was known as the murder capital of the prison complex, a long fall from its auspicious beginnings as a sanctuary of rehabilitation for youthful offenders. Gangs of teen inmates ran amok, and assaults against guards were commonplace. Now, even though it has tripled its inmate population, the Youth Center is a relatively calm and safe compound, especially compared with the Quack. The corrections staff has gained the upper hand, but its grip is tenuous: There are shortages of clothes, and the newly contracted, portion-controlled food is considered barely edible by everyone.
On a recent afternoon, a guard walks slowly down the sloping parking lot toward the entrance. It’s as if he’s trying to delay the moment when he must pass through the gate, abandon all hope, and go to work. A cohort tries to cheer him up, shouting, “Man, you come to work with your head down? Boy, I’m gonna tell you, if it’s gotten that damn bad, call in sick and don’t even come in.”
More than 800 inmates reside in dorms spread across the campus, and the guards on each shifta total of barely 30are vastly outnumbered. In one dormitory, a converted warehouse once used as the furniture factory, one officer oversees nearly 100 inmates, who sleep in bunk beds lined up on an open floor, like some makeshift refugee camp.
“What makes this job hard is we get pressure from the top and pressure from the inmates,” says a veteran guard. “When an inmate doesn’t like an officer, all that inmate has to say is, ‘Hey, that officer rubbed me on the ass,’ and the department will give it a full investigation, and that will taint the officer’s name. It’s like we’re the inmates.”
In the administration building, though, Deputy Warden Arnold Golden is upbeat about his facility’s transformation. A native New Yorker, Golden has been at the Youth Center since its inception, working his way up to management after starting here as a guard. “We have a caring attitude at the Youth Center,” he says, before acknowledging that tender loving care doesn’t work over at the Quack. “Then again, if you tell a guy with 60 years to behave, and then you tell this Youth Act guy to behave, then the guy with three years is probably gonna behave himself. What do you tell the murderer with 60 years?”
Golden says that earlier the youths here had no respect. “Ten years ago, it was very different herethis place was crazy, just terrible,” he recalls. “We had assaults three to four times a night.” He attributes the eventual turnaround to stiff sentencing penalties for misbehavior, a dedicated staff, and an effective Bible study, among other “blessings.”
Indeed, there are real incentives at the Youth Center that just aren’t available at the prison’s other facilities. Inmates here can gain admittance to a special “honor” dorm that boasts a sign in its stairwell that announces, “The men living here in this dormitory are learning to live again.” Most importantly for the residents, though, it’s the only place on the grounds that has air conditioning.
Cpl. Eugene Kerns remembers the bad times all too well. Back in ’87, he was severely beaten by two inmates; as a result, he spent a month in the hospital and lost a chunk of one lung. He agrees that things at the Youth Center have settled down considerably, even as his workload has increased due to the influx of prisoners.
Now Kerns presides over the night shift at Dorm 1, which houses inmates in protective custody. At 45, the prematurely gray Kerns is called “Matlock” by his fellow officers; he carries a gun in his belt when he’s off the clock.
A taciturn and moody man, Kerns is typical of many veteran guards at Lorton. He used to run his own heating and air conditioning business, but he made a midcareer change and decided to become a corrections officer. He took the training course, got his uniform, and went to work. He had no hankering for the job itself, no Charles Bronson scores to settle. He was interested in the job security and benefits; now both are threatened by the prison’s imminent closing.
Kerns’ 80-year-old father still berates him for switching careers and settling for the decidedly nonglamorous gig of prison guard at Lorton. He catches flak from all around, even when it’s meant as a compliment; his neighbor in rural Virginia, a county deputy, told Kerns that he wouldn’t do his job in a million years. But despite his job’s obvious shortcomings, Kerns patiently bides his time in work nobody wants to do.
Now Kerns stands chain-smoking Marlboro menthols at his post; he’s in charge of supervising 60 inmates. As protective-custody prisoners, they are confined to the dorm and a tiny fenced-in rec area. They’re not allowed to roam around the campus as the others are. Ranging in age from 18 to 80, they’re a ragtag bunch, sporting more Newport “Alive With Pleasure” T-shirts than standard-issue uniforms. This evening, they’re roughhousing and generally raising hell; they’re in a good mood because they had a decent chicken-and-mashed-potatoes dinner.
“That’s good,” says Kerns, referring to their rambunctiousness. “It’s only when they’re too quiet that you have to worry.”
The dorm TV is cranked to top volume, and combined with the inmates’ shouting, the racket hits ear-splitting levels. The chronic headaches stopped years ago, says Kerns. Hell, he doesn’t even notice the noise now. He’s more worried about keeping his job: eight more years and he gets full retirement benefits. That’s a long time to pull in Lorton, even at the Youth Center. He wonders how he ever ended up in this darkened pit, baby-sitting a bunch of convicts. “This is just a summer camp for them,” he scowls. “But for me, when I walk through those gates every day, I don’t know whether I’m gonna finish my tour of duty.” He fails to mention that he gets to leave the place every day, a critical difference when comparing the guard and the guarded.
Kerns reaches for his walkie-talkie and checks to see if it’s working. It seems to be functioning fine, at least for now. Then he settles in for another long night. Lorton guards pretty much do what inmates do: settle in, do what they can to keep boredom at bay, and hope the time passes.
When Jack Rosser reports to work at 8 a.m. every morning, he gets searched the same as everyone else entering or leaving Maximum Security. He hears the steel doors clang shut, and after all these years he still has a sense of dread and smells the “funk” every time he goes into a cellblock. It’s not really fear anymore, but a feeling that nonetheless tightens his chest.
And yet, Rosser strolls through his beat like a man without a care in the world. It’s actually a defense mechanism, a strategy for staying alive on the job. “We do have to use interpersonal skills in the commission of our duties,” he says. Then a typically dramatic pause. “Things do tend to happen.”
Certainly, Rosser depends on more than just his genial nature on the job. Inside the Wall, he’s got to deal with prisoners who have no hope of freedom; many face multiple life sentences that stretch to the year 2050 and beyondRosser dubs these draconian sentences “Star Trek time.” (Though more than half of Lorton’s inmates are here on drug charges, stricter sentencing guidelines have made life without parole more common.) There simply isn’t much incentive for these inmates to get up in the morning, much less to be pleasant or sociable. Rosser tries to find the person trapped inside the terminal prisoner. It’s not sympathy exactly, and certainly not solidarity with the inmate, says Rosser. It’s simply his job.
“It’s the way you carry yourself and the way you communicate,” he says. “You have to understand: When a person is locked up 23 hours a day, year in and year out, what is of monumental importancelike a mortgage is to some peoplecould be a toothbrush, a bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper. It takes on magnified importance, and it takes very little to rub a guy the wrong way. And it’s a matter of professionalism paying attention to these little details.”
Encased in 60-year-old brick shells, these cellblocks bake in the hot weather, and today the place is stifling and muggy. Prisoners stew in their 5-by-7 pens nearly all day and night. Unlike at the more open compounds, there is little chance to take out frustrations on fellow inmates, so they often target the guards.
When Rosser makes the rounds of his cellblock, though, it’s clear that he commands respect, and not a little affection, from his inmates. When a couple of dozen roar in from their hour recess, they’re shouting and screaming, all wound up. They mostly glare at a stranger. One mangy guyall untied boots and uncombed, frayed Afroleaps forward to get within inches of the bars, and launches into a frenzy of complaint against prison conditions: “The washing machines haven’t worked for six monthswe’re wearing the same shit! Man, I’m stinking like a dog, and I got goddamn lice crawling all over me!”
Rosser gives the “high sign”the stern raised eyebrow that one shoots at a misbehaving toddlerand the guy shuts his trap. Rosser greets the others with a sly but respectful salutation: “Hello, Senator” and “All right, Doctor,” and later he stops by every cell to listen to the most mundane requests.
If Rosser’s friendliness and concern for the inmates seems all too cozy, consider what can happen. The maximum-security guards tread a precarious catwalk on these narrow tiers, and a disgruntled inmate can express his anger any number of ways, the most popular being a practice known as “gassing” or “shitting you down.” All it takes is an empty plastic soda bottle and a scoopful of toilet muck; the inmate simply aims and squeezes. Obviously, HIV- or hepatitis-infected feces can pose a problem when splattered on an unsuspecting officer. Worse are the sharpened shanks that suddenly appear from the recesses of an inmate’s uniformthey can poke out an eye or impale a heart with a single well-timed thrust.
After Rosser completes his almost cheerful walk through the cellblock, it’s easy to forget that he has been bantering with a bunch of convicted killers and rapists. And it still seems odd that Rosser has taken to the role of corrections officer so well. Like most guards, he had no inkling he’d ever be working behind bars. Corrections isn’t typically an occupation one pursues by design, and Rosser literally fell into it.
Years ago, his retail store was held up in an armed robbery; he hit the floor fearing for his life. His fellow robbery victims were prison guards, and they got to talking after their shared trauma. As it turned out, Rosser was dog-tired of the 70-hour weeks toiling as a store manager; he wanted to spend more time with his wife and two boys, and the money and benefits for prison guards weren’t that bad a decade ago. Since then, despite the pay freezes and departmental cuts, and Lorton’s bad reputation, he has no regrets.
But he’s adamant about saving his job. He despises the efforts afoot to privatize and finally bury Lorton. In his view, the prison-industry movement is not just a threat to his livelihood, but a morally corrupt enterprise, period: “It’s a matter of what you believe, and in this increasingly business-oriented society, we tend to the bottom line. But [corrections] is inherently a government function.”
It’s obvious that Rosser has thought long and hard on this subject during his shifts behind the Wall.
“Do we have private judges sitting in court? Private juries that convict or acquit, private prosecutors that state the case? Everything about taking away an individual’s civil rights and pulling him away and confining him for a statutory period of time is inherently a government duty. To take those and give ’em to a company whose No. 1 function is to make money places people where life-and-death decisions and rights decisions are judged against a bottom line. If an inmate has a heart attack at Lorton, we rush to him medical care. We don’t stop and ask, ‘How much does this cost?’”
With disgust, he says privatization makes a corrections officer no better than, well, a guard for hire.
Naturally, Rosser is appalled at Lorton’s notorious deficiencieswhich he says are mostly due to a lack of money. But he claims that a dedicated prison staff has made it possible to somehow keep the prison functioning despite the often wretched conditions. He says Lorton could be saved if it had enough funding. And good union man that he is, he savages management, damning the employee layoffs and double-talking lack of support. He says his bosses are selling out to privatization: “When it comes to slinging euphemisms, they are no better than the little thugs we get hereyou know, they use words that don’t have that sting to it. Instead of, ‘I’m going to kill him,’ they say, ‘I’m gonna smoke ’em, or rub ’em off, or put a high-ball in him.’ Well, when management talks about ‘firing people,’ they don’t say thatthey call it a ‘reduction in force’ or ‘out-sourcing.’”
Rosser says that management’s worst recent transgression has been its “zero tolerance” investigation of sexual harassment, which formerly ran rampant. He says the offenders have been rooted out, and now the policy simply stokes an atmosphere of paranoia among corrections workers who desperately need solidarity to do their jobs safely. “It has created divisions between employees,” he says. “But inside that wall, we can’t afford that. We have to back one another up; it’s got to be us against them, because we’ve got inmates who will kill you just as easy as they’re eating breakfast.”
In Rosser’s view of the world inside, there is a breed of convict in the ’90s who lives beyond remorse. He recalls earlier eras’ grizzled inmates, who now seem like old softies compared to these cold teen killers: “If you look at some people who’ve been in prison for 40 years, and they look back on what they were and what they did, they have regrets and realize what a waste and how wrong it was. But what we’re seeing nowthis is a different animal. They don’t care about life.”
Even notorious Lorton doesn’t faze them. In fact, it’s become a rite of passage for adolescent males in Washington, a feather in the baseball cap. “Right now, Lorton is a badge of courage,” says Rosser. “In some sections of the city, if you haven’t been, something’s missing in your lifeyou just haven’t cut your teeth unless you’ve been to Lorton.”
Rosser says it’s not just the street environment that’s to blame for this disturbing phenomenon; he points to Lorton’s visitation policy as one more big crack in the wall of civility. Many of the families that visit relatives here bring along toddlers, who get a skewed view of life behind bars. Rosser believes that children of inmates shouldn’t be allowed to visit prison until they are at least 12 years old. For many of these families, the trip to Lorton is their most important social event except for church, and it’s often the only time they ever leave the neighborhood.
He relates a scene he’s seen again and again: “Daddy’s doing 10 years to life for drug distribution….We go visit him [at Lorton] and we get hugs and kisses and intense attention for that hour. Daddy is so happy to see us. Daddy’s looking pretty good; in fact, he’s looking healthy. He’s there all dressed up and he’s taken a shower and everything, bouncing us on his leg, kissing Mama, and they hug.
“That little kid grows up, and when you say ‘jail,’ he has memories of Daddy and the love that Daddy showed….How much do you think that boy fears jail? Do you think he has terrible memories of jail? Do you think he’s scared of jail? We have knocked out the fear that is supposed to be inculcated; we’ve knocked it right out of that child in his formative years.”
It wasn’t like that when Rosser was growing up: Prison was definitely something to fear. Near his boyhood home in Prince George’s County, across the District line in Northeast, there was a youth detention center, Youth Reformatory, a sort of precursor to Oak Hill, that everybody called the “Bad Boys’ Reformatory.” “One time we acted up, and Daddy came along South Dakota Avenue [NE] and parked the car and said, ‘I will let you out right here and walk you up those buildings’and up on the bluff it looked just like Lorton. He was trying to scare us, and he did.”
Now Rosser is working at the once-dreaded place, only in a scenario where the employees are as trapped and vulnerable as the prisoners. Stuck in a predicament he can do little to change, he can’t help making fun of the dilapidated surroundings. Two years ago, a top section of Max’s back wall toppled; now it’s crowned by a barbed-wire fence. He warned his prisoners not to try to take advantage of the situation and make an escape attempt: “I told the inmates, ‘You can try to jump it if you want, but when you pull, don’t be surprised if it comes to you instead of you going to ityou know, one loose brick coming from 30 feet up can do some damage.”
Rosser admits that the on-the-job pressure can still torment him. Sometimes, after a bad day, he takes an alternate route on the ride home. He cruises up the bucolic George Washington Parkway along the Potomac to meditate and try to exorcise the anger and despair and pent-up tension. When he arrives home to his wife and two sons in suburban Maryland, he wants to be transformed back into a father and husband, no easy task after a rough shift behind the Wall. He tries to explain to his boys about his job; he showed them a video of The Shawshank Redemption, to let them know that the Hollywood image of the cruel, murderous guard wielding guns and clubs is a myth. Sure, there might occasionally be power-tripping guards who abuse the men they look after, but in his view of the world, they are the exception.
On that slow, soothing drive by the river, Rosser begins to feel like a free man again, and he savors the sensation as few 9-to-5ers along the parkway can. He drinks in the freedom because he knows that come tomorrow, he’ll be back behind the Wall at Lorton.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.