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Transforming Lorton Prison Into New Homes

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The guard towers and penitentiary walls at the former Lorton Prison site will remain intact after construction, save for a few adjustments such as additional entrances.
Lauren Landau
The guard towers and penitentiary walls at the former Lorton Prison site will remain intact after construction, save for a few adjustments such as additional entrances.

Lorton Prison closed its gates in 2001, but thanks to a redevelopment project the historic property will soon have residents again. But this time they'll be living there voluntarily.

The Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse Plan will redevelop the former prison site for residential, commercial, and retail purposes. Chris Caperton is Fairfax County's Department of Planning and Zoning project coordinator. He is overseeing the project, which will convert former prison dormitories into apartments and transform penitentiary areas into offices, shops, and a yoga studio.

Caperton says he would like to start construction in mid to late 2013, and says there are a number of benefits to the project. "First of all, this area gets reactivated, and where once we had a prison and an undesirable population next door to residences, we're going to have a vibrant community of people living here, people shopping here, and businesses as well."

He says the project will also increase knowledge of Lorton's history. The property is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the plan is to keep the original structures intact, at least from the outside. The interior of the buildings will need a serious facelift, but the building facades, guard towers, and penitentiary walls will remain more or less the same.

Lorton Prison: A place to learn skills and productivity

Fairfax County bought the 2,500-acre property from the federal government in 2001, under the condition that most of the land be maintained as park and open space, and the buildings remain intact. To ensure that this process goes smoothly and the buildings aren't damaged, planners enlisted the help of The Alexander Company, a historic developer that specializes in these kinds of projects.

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," Caperton says.

Lorton actively embraced the new methodology, which focused more on rehabilitation than punishment. Inmates had access to fresh air, lived together in a dormitory, and could learn a trade like plumbing or carpentry. At that time, the prison also had no walls or watchtowers.

"Basically they just worked off their sentence in the open air working on the farm or at the brick kilns," Caperton says. "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 could be a productive member of society."

Prisoners held an important role in Lorton's construction. Not only did they make the bricks that were used for the reformatory and other prison structures, but they also built the actual buildings. D.C. Municipal Architect Snowden Ashford designed the buildings, and in the 1920s the inmates built the reformatory, which features a distinct, colonial revivalism style of architecture. The walled penitentiary and guard towers were built later, in the 1930s.

The former prison site has three campuses: the reformatory area, the recreation field, and the penitentiary, where prisoners with longer sentences served their time. A few years ago, a redevelopment project by the Lorton Arts Foundation transformed the former prison workhouse into an arts center and museum, but the rest of the prison buildings have remained untouched.

Building anew, but preserving the past

About 30 rusty bedframes and lockers line the walls of one abandoned dormitory, where broken ceiling plaster lies on the dusty floor, and the tile is beginning to crack and peel. Caperton says the building's foundation and walls are structurally sound, which bodes well for reconstruction.

At one time, the dorm housed as many as 40 or 50 prisoners packed together like sardines, according to Caperton. The plan is to convert the space into two or three one-bedroom apartments, which is a considerably more comfortable arrangement than the last residents of the building had. Caperton says that in the 1980s and '90s Lorton Prison had a reputation for being dangerously overcrowded.

"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," Caperton says.

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 says Lorton has sentimental value for him.

I grew up there, "Petty says. "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.

"Whether it was good or bad, whether you believed in it or not, people lived and died there," Petty says. "People grew and went from boys to men in there, and there was development there. There was tragedy, you know, but there was triumph."

Petty says it's going to be "weird" to have people living on the grounds again. "But I hope that they can keep the grounds just the way they were, because it was a community," he says. "It was our home."

Petty says he'd like to get involved with the new project and its future community.

[Music: "Chain Gang" by Sam Cooke from Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 / "Back Home" by Booker T and the MG's from Melting Pot]

Photos: Lorton Prison

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