The Workhouse Reformatory and Penitentiary buildings of the Lorton Prison Complex developed over a ninety year period on land purchased by the Federal Government for use by the District of Columbia’s Department of Corrections. The original purchase of 1150 acres on the Occoquan River eventually grew to include more than 3,200 acres.
The Workhouse was designed to rehabilitate and reform prisoners through fresh air, good food, honest work, and fair treatment, a Progressive Era reform policy. The first male prisoners arrived at the site in 1910 and lived in tents by the river. They used wood from the property to construct the earliest Workhouse buildings. From its inception the Workhouse had no bars, fences, walls or guard towers.
A Woman’s Workhouse opened in 1912 on a nearby site. Sentences at both institutions were of short duration.
Male inmates raised beef and dairy cattle, pigs, poultry and all manner of vegetables and fruit in pursuit of the mission of the Workhouse. Corn, wheat and hay for the animals were also produced on the extensive acreage of the complex. Women prisoners made clothes for the all prisoners, did laundry, and worked in the kitchens.
The deteriorating wooden structures at the Workhouse were replaced during the 1920s and 30s by the brick structures seen today. The District’s first municipal architect, Snowden Ashford, planned the permanent buildings in Colonial Revival style to convey Progressive Era ideals of the integration of work, home, education, recreation, healthcare and religion. All the buildings were constructed by the inmates from bricks they made themselves at the kilns located along the Occoquan River.
To connect with the RF&P Railroad near Pohick Creek a four-mile Lorton and Occoquan Railroad was built which lead from the wharf at Occoquan past the Workhouse and Reformatory. Completed in 1925, the railroad was used to transport prisoners, building materials, industrial products, coal and sewage.
Initially farmed with draft horse power, the farm became ninety-five percent mechanized in 1950 with new machinery.
In March 1966 a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals known as the Easter Decision made alcoholism a public health problem, not a crime. Since most of the Workhouse inmates had been arrested for public intoxication, sixty percent were subsequently released. As a direct result, there were insufficient inmates to staff the farm and other Workhouse operations. The brickyard was permanently closed in 1966 after fifty-five years.
The empty space at the Workhouse was used in October 1967 to house protesters arrested during Pentagon demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
The Men’s and Women’s Workhouses were officially closed in February 1968 and the remaining inmates transferred to other prisons. The majority of the buildings and grounds were turned over to the District’s Department of Public Health to use as an Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center. Subsequently, the facilities came back to the Department of Corrections as a higher security prison.
By 1995 the entire Lorton Correctional Complex housed 7,300 inmates, forty-four percent above capacity. The District Government lacked the funds needed to construct housing for the exploding inmate population and to maintain the facilities at adequate staffing levels. Eventually, the Federal Government took financial control over the District of Columbia Government.
The growing suburban communities surrounding the Complex lobbied eagerly for the prison to be closed. Local political leaders actively led negotiations with the Federal Government about the future of the facilities. In 1998 Federal legislation was passed closing the Complex. The last prisoner left Lorton November 20, 2001.
After the Lorton Correctional Complex closed, 2,324 acres were sold to Fairfax County, Virginia in 2002 for 4.2 million dollars. The county undertook a comprehensive adaptive re-use study for the prime location. One decision was to create a private, not-for-profit multi-arts center. The Workhouse Arts Center opened to the public at the Workhouse in September 2008.