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Prison (Re)Form

June 11, 2016 - December 31, 2017

Today the President calls for criminal reform due to the commercialization of prisons and high levels of incarcerated men in the United States. At the same time, women in the United States continue to fight for equality. Opened in 1910, the Workhouse has always been synonymous with prison reform and the fight for gender equality.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Workhouse buildings were made from bricks forged on site by the prisoners, and laid by hand by the prisoners. Expressed as a Progressive Era idea to help petty criminals reform, the Workhouse prison became a place tarnished by its reputation. Forcing labor, torturing Suffragists and dangerously overcrowding inmates, the Workhouse finally closed at the turn of the century.

Prison (Re)Form will feature a limited number of sculptors on the outside grounds of the Workhouse. The exhibit will feature artwork grounded in the rich and layered history of the Workhouse prison.

The outdoor sculptures will engage in conversations of current and historic significance related to the penal system, the Suffragists, the use of labor and the contemporary state of prisons in the United States. Visitors will experience how artists represent that interpretation on the historical grounds, pregnant with the memories of prisoners, Suffragists, artists and laborers all hoping for a better tomorrow.

Workhouse History: During the summer of 1910 some two dozen prisoners from the District of Columbia Jail were barged to the banks of the Occoquan River in Virginia. Their task was to construct a workhouse prison using their own labor. A sawmill planked timber cut from the river’s edge. Mules dragged the building materials up the steep slope and by early fall several dormitories housed men who had been arrested for drunkenness and vagrancy.

Pursuing a Progressive Era penal reform policy the Workhouse was designed to rehabilitate and change prisoners through fresh air, good food, honest work, and fair treatment.

In the 1920’s and 30’s a penitentiary and reformatory were built on additional acreage purchased for the prison and the wooden workhouse dormitories were replaced. These buildings were all constructed of bricks fired in kilns by the Occoquan River. Prisoners made both the bricks and built the buildings. This brick was also used to construct public buildings in the District of Columbia such as schools and firehouses.

In 1917 a large group of determined women was imprisoned in the Women’s Division of the Workhouse. Their crime? Picketing the White House in support of women’s right to vote. Government officials considered them to be troublemakers and their treatment while prisoners at the Workhouse was harsh. History would know them as Suffragists. Their treatment aroused nationwide sympathy and played a significant part in changing public opinion. As a result, the passage of the 19th Amendment is intimately linked to the D.C. Workhouse at Lorton.

When the prison was conceived and built, it was surrounded by thinly populated farmland. After the Second World War, the population of the DC area steadily pushed outward so that by the 1980’s Lorton had become deeply suburban. The community was fearful of the prison, leery of, among other things, escaping prisoners. At the same time the prison became more and more overcrowded and the buildings fell into disrepair.

In 2001 the prison was closed by order of Congress. All prisoners were transferred to Federal prisons around the country. Many of the temporary building were removed after closure and the beauty of the original brick structures was revealed. The Colonial Revival architecture was graced with curved arches and long porticos around a central quadrangle presenting a calm, attractive face to the world.

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June 11, 2016
December 31
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Workhouse Quad & Campus Grounds
9518 Workhouse Way
Lorton, VA, 22079