Art is all that is left behind in the cells of Lorton prison

Inside abandoned Lorton, once one of the country’s most notorious prisons, pale green paint is peeling — drifting from ceilings, chipping from concrete floors in the silence of a haunting past.

The cells are empty now except for one thing prisoners left behind: their art. The work is crude — sometimes vulgar, sometimes poetic — archaeological renderings of a lost civilization, capturing what it must have felt like to be locked away here.

In the darkness of one cell, an inmate left deep scratches of a man marking time: 1111 crossed through with diagonal lines.

Another drew calendars that climb frantically up and down walls, numbers descending in order until time and space ran out. Desperate prayers are scripted, pleadings to Dios and to God.

Chuck Brown, “Godfather of Go-Go,” did eight years on a murder conviction here. Suffragist Lucy Burns was jailed for protesting at the White House.

The complex eventually encompassed 200 buildings. Conditions were so horrid Congress ordered it shut by 2001. The federal government sold it to Fairfax County. Post-1961 buildings were razed; 95 historic ones were slated for redevelopment.

In 2004, the county approved turning 55 acres and 35 buildings into Workhouse Arts Center, with studios and a museum with exhibits on prisoner art and suffragists being force-fed here. Workhouse Arts Foundation is trying to raise $2.5 million to build a bigger museum.

In July, the Fairfax board aims to vote on a development agreement for the 60 other buildings. If it passes, reformatory dorms would become apartments; the chapel, a community center. Guards’ quarters would become condos. The penitentiary dining hall would fill with boutiques. The main penitentiary would become retail or residences.

And gone would be the art of frustration, boredom and anger.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.

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DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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