Transforming Lorton Prison Into New Homes (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Transforming Lorton Prison Into New Homes

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:03
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

00:00:21
Chris Caperton is giving me a tour of the grounds that once housed Lorton Prison.

MR. CHRIS CAPERTON

00:00:26
They would walk in this building and then one of the dormitories next door.

LANDAU

00:00:32
Caperton is with the Fairfax County Department of Planning and is heading up a project to give the property new life.

CAPERTON

00:00:38
My responsibility is to specifically to work with the redevelopment of the former Lorton Prison property.

LANDAU

00:00:43
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.

LANDAU

00:01:00
Caperton says he would like to start construction within a year.

CAPERTON

00:01:03
We're going to have a vibrant community of people living here, people shopping here and businesses as well.

LANDAU

00:01:09
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.

CAPERTON

00:01:35
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.

LANDAU

00:01:48
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.

CAPERTON

00:02:00
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.

LANDAU

00:02:18
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.

CAPERTON

00:02:30
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.

LANDAU

00:02:42
Caperton says reforms initially worked and it was safe for prisoners to live and work together with minimal supervision.

CAPERTON

00:02:49
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.

LANDAU

00:02:58
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.

CAPERTON

00:03:09
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.

LANDAU

00:03:18
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.

CAPERTON

00:03:37
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."

LANDAU

00:03:54
But soon people will be able to say just that. One can only imagine the cocktail party conversations that will take place.

LANDAU

00:04:01
If these walls could talk what do you think they would say?

CAPERTON

00:04:04
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.

LANDAU

00:04:22
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.

CAPERTON

00:04:45
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.

LANDAU

00:04:58
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

00:05:13
I grew up there. You know, I came in uneducated, immature, addicted to everything and a wreck and found myself and found God there.

LANDAU

00:05:23
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.

PETTY

00:05:36
Some things happened that were really bad down here, but a lot of good came out at the end.

LANDAU

00:05:41
Would you ever consider calling Lorton your home again and moving into one of the condos?

PETTY

00:05:46
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.

LANDAU

00:05:56
And before you know it, Lorton Prison will be home again. I'm Lauren Landau.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:06:07
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:06:56
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:07:28
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.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:07:44
Also on metroconnection.org you can find our Twitter and Facebook links, you can read free transcripts of stories and if you missed part of today's show you can hear the whole thing by clicking on the this week on "Metro Connection" link. To hear our most recent episodes, click the podcast link or find us on iTunes.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:08:01
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

00:08:13
So I said, well, here I go with my commercial intent and design. And I made a living legend out of myself from that.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:08:20
I'm Sabri Ben-Achour and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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