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An innovative collaboration of visual and performing arts and education in the unique historic setting of the former DC prison.

Workhouse Prison Museum at Lorton

About the Workhouse Prison Museum at Lorton
Located in Building W-9

The Workhouse Prison Museum opened to the public in 2009.  Presently in a temporary home in Building W-9 at the Workhouse Arts Center the museum was created to present an overview of some of the interesting events which took place at the District of Columbia Correctional Complex at Lorton from its opening in 1910 until the last prisoner left in December 2001.

Visitors to the museum will learn why President Theodore Roosevelt, pursuing a Progressive Era reform policy, supported the establishment of an alternative to the traditional jails found in the United States.  When the Workhouse opened it was a model for the rehabilitation and reformation of prisoners through fresh air, decent food, honest work and fair treatment. 

Later, in 1917, after the opening of the Women’s Workhouse, more than 70 determined suffragists demanding the right to vote were imprisoned at Lorton.  The women were housed under deplorable conditions and some of the prisoners went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment.  The unwarranted incarceration of these dedicated women had a significant influence on public opinion nation-wide and led, in part, to the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

The wooden buildings of the Reformatory, Penitentiary and Workhouse were gradually replaced with during the 1920’s with permanent structures.  These buildings were constructed by the inmates from bricks they made themselves in the kilns located along the nearby Occoquan River. 

During the Cold War, the U.S. Army built a large, anti-aircraft missile installation on the Lorton property.  During the Vietnam War protestors arrested at the Pentagon were housed in the Workhouse.

The museum is staffed by volunteers.  If you are interested in supporting the museum through contributions of historic materials or by volunteering to work at the museum, please e-mail Laura McKie at lmckie@comcast.net.   Tax-deductible  monetary contributions are gratefully accepted.  Checks may be made out to:  Workhouse Arts Foundation/Workhouse Prison Museum, 9517 Workhouse Way, Lorton, Virginia  22079.

The Workhouse Prison Museum at Lorton is open free to the public Wednesday-Friday from noon until 3 pm and on Saturday and Sunday from noon until 4 pm.  On the second Saturday of each month the museum is open in the evening.

Future PlansTypical suffragist clothing, c. 1917.  Workhouse Prison Museum

The former Lorton Arts Foundation Board appointed a Museum Advisory Committee in 2010 to determine the feasibility of building a permanent museum at the Workhouse.  The Committee recommended and the Board decided to support the creation of a museum.  The museum will be located in W-2 and 2a at the Workhouse. 

In addition to enlarging upon the events mentioned above, the permanent museum will display a dozen original cells that show the Workhouse prisoners’ living conditions in the latter part of the 20th century.  The personal stories of prisoners, guards and local residents will come alive through audio and video recordings.  Railroad enthusiasts will learn about the tiny Lorton & Occoquan Railroad (L&O) built to carry bricks, coal and supplies throughout the complex.  Lorton inmates built and ran the railroad with nary an escape.

The museum visit will conclude with a description of the remarkable transformation of a prison into the Workhouse Arts Center, a place where adults and children can dance and perform where artists create and teach, and where local residents can play, learn and celebrate in historic surroundings.Ariel view, D.C. Workhouse, 1961.

Mission and Vision

            The vision for the Workhouse Prison Museum is to develop an accredited regional museum dedicated to presenting the history of events which took place at the District of Columbia Correctional Facility at Lorton.

            The mission of the Workhouse Prison Museum is to collect, catalog, preserve, interpret and exhibit historical materials regarding the D.C. correctional facility in Lorton, Virginia, documenting its early 20th century founding to its 21st century transformation into a regional cultural center.  The Museum will share this valuable history with the community through interactive exhibits, educational programs and special events.

For more information about the Workhouse Prison Museum click here.