MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
We're going to end today's show with a home tour. It's, like, not your regular home tour, though, it's of a former prison that was once home to thousands of inmates. It's the Lorton Correctional Complex in Lorton, Va. and as Lauren Landau reports, this sprawling facility is about to get a major makeover.
MS. LAUREN LANDAU
Chris Caperton is giving me a tour of the grounds that once housed Lorton Prison.
MR. CHRIS CAPERTON
They would walk in this building and then one of the dormitories next door.
Caperton is with the Fairfax County Department of Planning and is heading up a project to give the property new life.
My responsibility is to specifically to work with the redevelopment of the former Lorton Prison property.
The project is called the Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse Plan. Old dormitories will be converted into apartments. The former dining hall will be used retail purposes and four of the maximum security cell blocks will be transformed into offices and a yoga studio.
Caperton says he would like to start construction within a year.
We're going to have a vibrant community of people living here, people shopping here and businesses as well.
The prison is on the National Register of Historic Places so when Fairfax County bought it from the federal government in 2001 the deal came with the expectation that most of the 2,500 acre campus would be maintained as park and open space and the buildings would remain intact. Caperton says the property is historic not only because of the buildings' architecture but because of the activities that went on there.
In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt appointed a penal commission to look at the prison conditions in Washington, D.C. and out of that commission came a recommendation for a new prison and actually a new way to run prisons.
Lorton took an active role in the new methodology, which greatly impacted prison life. Inmates had access to fresh air, lived together in a dormitory and could learn a trade like plumbing or carpentry.
Basically they just worked off their sentence in the open air working on the farm or at the brick kilns. If you had a little bit longer sentence then you came here to the reformatory where you learned a trade or worked in a vocational type of setting so that once your release came you were trained in an area and you could be a productive member of society.
The prison structures were built by inmates using bricks they manufactured in the kilns. Inmates built the reformatory in the 1920s, using a distinct colonial revivalism style of architecture.
We're sitting in this courtyard and it could be a campus environment somewhere. You've got beautiful breezeways and arched brick columns. So you might not typically associate this with a prison.
Caperton says reforms initially worked and it was safe for prisoners to live and work together with minimal supervision.
Of course, the image that we have of Lorton is probably more toward the 1980s and 90s when it was vastly overcrowded and then in that case it was a dangerous place to live.
In those days, 40 or even 50 men would packed into a single room in Lorton's reformatory, where rusty bed frames still line the walls of some rooms.
As you can see, there's a door at the back end and we have a door on the side and we'll probably have to cut in one new door perhaps for a middle unit. These will probably be one-bedroom units.
Caperton says the buildings are structurally sound and predicts it will take about two years to convert the old dormitories into one-bedroom apartments. But it's hard to imagine people living here, walking their dogs, pushing strollers and hanging paintings where inmate once scrolled his initials.
Well, as over-planner, I think it's actually kind of exciting because we see reuse all over our country and there are even some examples of the former reuse of prisons for hotels and other municipal type of buildings. So it really is not that farfetched but there's not a lot of people that can say, "I live in a former prison."
But soon people will be able to say just that. One can only imagine the cocktail party conversations that will take place.
If these walls could talk what do you think they would say?
Well, I think these walls would be talking a lot about the lives of prisoners, many of which came from D.C. and we look around and I see old newspaper clippings and I see Washington Redskin stickers. I think it's important to remember that these were human beings, they were put in a pretty tough living condition here.
No one has lived here since the prison closed in 2001 but there's still evidence that people were here. A gray blanket and discarded razor lay on a rusted out cot in one of the maximum security cells. Cigarette butts hide in the crevices of the cell block and strips of fabric remain knotted to iron bars where prisoners once strung up homemade laundry lines.
I believe at the height of the prison population in the 1990s, it was about 10,000 inmates here, but that was drawn down to about 2,000 inmates in the year 2000 and by 2001 the last remaining inmates were transferred out.
One of the last to go was former inmate Kevin Petty, who arrived at Lorton Prison in 1980. When it closed, he was transferred to a federal prison where he finished his sentence in 2009. But he never forgot about Lorton.
MR. KEVIN PETTY
I grew up there. You know, I came in uneducated, immature, addicted to everything and a wreck and found myself and found God there.
Within Lorton's walls, Petty earned two college degrees and started a ministry and singing group called The Amazing Gospel Souls. He says it's important to preserve Lorton's history and the memories of what happened there.
Some things happened that were really bad down here, but a lot of good came out at the end.
Would you ever consider calling Lorton your home again and moving into one of the condos?
Probably, yes, yes. I would love it. That would really be special, for me, for The Amazing Gospel Souls, you know, and all of us that went through that would always be home.
And before you know it, Lorton Prison will be home again. I'm Lauren Landau.
To see photos of what Lorton looks like these days and to learn more about the plans for its future, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Kavitha Cardoza, Jacob Fenston, Bryan Russo, Rebecca Sheir and Lauren Landau. WAMU's managing editor of news is Meymo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. And we say a heartfelt thank you and au revoir today to our amazing intern, Raphaella Bennin, as she heads on to other adventures in public radio. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts," our "Door to Door" theme "No, Girl" are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can see all the music we use on our website, metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song.
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We hope you can join us next week when we'll bring you an hour all about profiles. We'll hang out with some of our favorite characters from the past year, from the man who runs one of the nation's last drive-in movie theaters to this guy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1
So I said, well, here I go with my commercial intent and design. And I made a living legend out of myself from that.
I'm Sabri Ben-Achour and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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