Two Years Ago on ISBAA : Inside an Old Prison

Lorton Reformatory Rob Paine

Over a six-month period in 2012 I had the opportunity to photograph the old Lorton Reformatory in Lorton, Va., part of two photo club outings. The infamous prison which housed inmates from the District of Columbia but stood in Fairfax County in the Commonwealth of Virginia had a historical and controversial existence. Please see more text and more photos below. Please also drop back in tomorrow for Part II of this post, which will include more photos of Lorton and photos of how this historic prison is used today. All photos on this blog were taken by Rob Paine and are copyrighted.

lorton Rob Paine
Basketball courts sat between many of the buildings that housed prisoners at the Lorton Reformatory.

The prison came to be in the early 1900s as a proposed remedy to prison overcrowding in Washington D.C. According to the Web site, the original Lorton Reformatory tract was close to 1200 acres in size. During the ninety-some years the District of Columbia’s Correctional Complex was operational, the same Web site reads, the area in use ballooned to over 3200 acres.

As Fairfax County transitioned from a patchwork of small towns and dairy farms to the affluent suburb of the Nation’s Capital it is today, the push to remove the D.C prison from Virginia picked up steam. In the late 1990’s Congress passed legislation forcing Lorton’s closure in 2001. In 2002 more than 2,000 acres of the Lorton tract were sold to Fairfax County. Those acres are now being redeveloped as a mixed use project, which includes new parks, new living space and an arts center called the Workhouse Arts Center.

To get the full history of Lorton, please visit the Workhouse Web site.

During my years as a photojournalist, I had several opportunities to photograph some of the cell areas of the Fairfax County jail, but had never been to Lorton.  I drove past it frequently on the way to Interstate 95 always wondering what it was like inside. When I had the chance to finally tour parts of the prison I jumped at the chance.

Being inside Lorton’s prison walls I felt a strong sense of history and at the same time shared an uncomfortable feeling for what is must have been like to be locked up in this place.

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The weather was fantastic on both days I toured Lorton. Strong sunlight streamed through the prison windows in to this building that had barracks type bedding arrangements. The photo above and below were taken of identical buildings. While most of the dormitories had been emptied, the one above  had bed frames and cabinets. I was told later this dorm had bee refurnished for the filming of a television show. For a jail, it was a pretty bright well lit place. The maximum security area shown later in this post did not include the same benefit.

The photo club outings I was taken part in at Lorton were under the supervision of Fairfax County. Some of the people with us on one tour were from a local urban exploring meet up group.
While this expedition could be considered to be urban exploring, Lorton was pretty mild compared to walking through a deserted factory in a big city covered with no trespassing signs.

Everyone had permission to be there and were required to sign waives saying we would not hold the county liable for any injuries. I was even told at one point that the county had removed any asbestos which may have been in the building when the prison closed. Outside a few errant squirrels and birds, it was a pretty safe place to be, unless somebody tried to lock themselves or a buddy into one of the cells, (Which the county folks said actually happened once and it it took several hours to get a locksmith to open the cell door.)

The prison is still in pretty good shape considering it held its last inmate well over a decade ago. I am really surprised more movies have not been filmed at the old Lorton site.

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Below is a row of cells in one of the more higher security areas of the prison. Each cell had a toilet and a bed. There was another floor of identical cells on top of this one in the building, some very tight quarters.

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If  the prison’s windows were not covered with bars and screens, it would be easy to confuse part of the Lorton Reformatory with  a college campus. Many of the buildings were built with a colonial brick and arch look surrounding a giant grass covered quadrangle.  Below is a smoke indicator in the prison’s power plant.

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One of the things I found most fascinating was the abundance of art of the prison walls. Below are three such paintings I photographed while on my tour of Lorton.

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Thanks for visiting my blog today. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. Rob

Please feel free to leave a reply. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughtful feedback, Rob

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