Commemorative Intersections of Carceral History in Lorton, Virginia

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On more than 3,200 acres of land in South Fairfax County, twenty miles from Washington, DC, there is a patchwork of new housing developments and recreational facilities. Dispersed throughout these new features on the landscape are old brick buildings that constitute the Workhouse Arts Center, a not-for-profit organization supporting artist studios and gallery spaces. One of the attractions of the Workhouse Arts Center is the Lucy Burns Museum, named for the suffragist who was brutalized here with dozens of other women in retaliation for protesting outside of the White House for women’s right to vote in 1917. 

The Lorton Prison Complex, also known as the Workhouse, Reformatory and Penitentiary or the DC Workhouse, was a prison built in the “academical campus” style modeled by the University of Virginia. The buildings date from the 1920s and 1930s, constructed of bricks made by incarcerated people in kilns located on the Occoquan River. Building 2 is today the site of the Lucy Burns Museum. Photo credit: Laura Macaluso

While learning more about Lorton and its history during several successive visits in 2021, I gradually became unsettled by the site. First was the challenge in trying to make sense of the layers of history under my feet as I visited different parts of the environment amidst its current emphases. Second, and more problematic, is Lorton’s historical lineage. The Workhouse has 91 years of federal prison history, served a short stint as a rehabilitation facility for unhealthy alcohol use, and was later turned back into a prison complex where the incarcerated, their families, and prison workers lived out their lives. Due to the centennial commemoration of the 19th Amendment in 2020, the Lucy Burns Museum is known widely for the suffragist story, which overshadows a much longer history of incarceration for generations of Americans, many of them African American men and women. Further, the current use of most of the Workhouse Arts Center for studio and gallery spaces is the primary draw to the site, with the museum and its carceral history secondary. 

What I came to understand is that the Lucy Burns Museum does not exist on its own as a distinct or separate place; the institution is part of a larger landscape of carceral history, and it will take time for any visitor new to the area to make sense of its complexities. For example, riding a bike on the Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail, you pass under an impressive barrel vaulted brick built by incarcerated people. Driving your car on the Fairfax County Parkway through Lorton means passing by an abandoned white timber-frame house, once lived in by the superintendent of the Workhouse prison. In 2021, the formal commemorative aspect of the site saw the unveiling of a brand-new, million-dollar monument to the suffragists. In other words, the commemorative intersections—both formal and informal—of carceral history are seemingly everywhere you look. 

While the Lucy Burns Museum offers walls of high-quality text panels filled with important images and information about the suffragists to digest, it was the bespoke remnants of an earlier museum on site that affected me the most. A prison history museum had existed earlier at the Workhouse Arts Center before funds were raised to renovate another space that became a new museum celebrating the suffragist centennial. Today, the interpretation in the Lucy Burns Museum is largely dedicated to the suffrage story, while a smaller portion details the history of the prison complex. Visitors can pay a fee to enter a cell block, the entrance of which is behind the visitor center desk. The only visual interpretation provided is a vignette in one cell of two prison guards force feeding a suffragist. Fake blood splatters on her dress. Nearby, a series of black buttons is located next to five photographs displaying images of suffragists. The buttons turn on garbled voices of the women telling their own stories.  

Paul, along with Lucy Burns, was a founding member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She later split from the organization to form the National Women’s Party (NWP). Paul started a hunger strike while in prison. Photo courtesy of Laura Macaluso.

There is a lot to take in at the Lucy Burns Museum, the Workhouse Arts Center, and in Lorton itself. A series of black and white photocopied images put together by a staff member of the prison and made available at the front desk in a simple binder provided evocative primary source images of the once agricultural landscape and the changes over time in the methods of incarcerating Americans. This low-technology interpretation tool did much for me in terms of understanding the broader context of the prison. At its inception in 1920, the Workhouse, Reformatory and Penitentiary buildings of the Lorton Prison Complex were a work of the Progressive Era; they presented an alternative to the terrible conditions of the Washington, DC jail. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the prison system there was “designed to rehabilitate and reform prisoners through fresh air, good food, honest work, and fair treatment” (Lucy Burns Museum brochure). There were no fences, bars on windows, walls, or guard towers. But an early photo of prison guards in 1912 holding Billy clubs and wooden rods, and the use of dogs such as bloodhounds, belie this reform movement ideology. 

Over time, the reform approach changed drastically, and today the remnants of multiple guard towers stand around the perimeter of the Workhouse Arts Center. An exhibit case on the wall displays the tools of the trade by the late-20th-century prisoners and their jailers: the top row features handcuffs and keys, the bottom row displays handmade weapons known as shanks and shivs. The prison was the scene of violence and destructive riots from at least 1960 through the end of its use as a prison in 2001, when the last incarcerated man was transferred out and the facility was purchased by Fairfax County for redevelopment. These few remaining handmade objects are overshadowed by the bright, shiny, and new. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, a walk or bike ride from the Workhouse Art Center at Occoquan Regional Park, a brand-new recreational area created and managed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and built on land that was the original “landing site” of the first incarcerated people from Washington, DC. This is also the site of a large beehive kiln, made and used by incarcerated people to create the bricks for the prison complex and many other features on the landscape. 

The commemorative intersections of carceral history in Lorton are thick with meaning and legacy, but dense to sort through and digest and uneven in the weight accorded to the multiple histories located within the site. Furthermore, most visitors to the Workhouse Arts Center, Occoquan Regional Park, and the many recreational spots woven throughout the former 3,200 acre prison complex come primarily for recreation–not for education or historical interpretation. It is something like the inverse of visiting a historical unit of the National Park Service, where interpretation and narration receive primary attention and recreation comes secondary. Fairfax County purchased this property for open space and recreational use, but also found itself the caretaker of hundreds of historic buildings and a historical legacy that is today recognized for its role in systemic racism. 

~ Laura Macaluso is a cultural heritage specialist who works on intersections between public art and public history. 

  1. Diane says:

    A book was written by Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, which is an excellent read and gives an account of the Suffragettes work to get a Constitutional Amendment giving women the right to vote.

    The book is available free for download through Google Books,

    1. Thank you for the book suggestion, Diane!

  2. Thank you for the book suggestion, Diane!

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