The Art of Rehabilitation

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

The notations are still legible on the color-coded chart that hangs at the entrance to the "Adjustment Unit," the Lorton prison's genteel designation for the cellblock that housed its most dangerous and disruptive inmates.

"Red for special attention!!!!" reads one frantic message. Two of the 38 cells were marked for suicide risks. Along the right side of the board is a space for "daily medications." Amid the peeling paint of the cell walls, other messages endure. "Omerta" -- the code of silence -- looms in big, black letters. A December calendar, year unknown, with the days crossed out through the 14th, is etched in pencil.

Before it closed in January 2001, the 90-year-old D.C. Correctional Facility at Lorton epitomized virtually everything dysfunctional and dangerous about the country's penal system: severe overcrowding, rampant violence, a flourishing drug trade and administrative incompetence.

For residents of the southern Fairfax County community surrounding the 2,400-acre complex, it perpetuated the area's reputation as "the armpit" of an otherwise thriving county, said Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon).

Yesterday, Fairfax officials inaugurated an effort to redeem the prison's bleak legacy by reinventing 55 acres of Lorton as an arts campus. Over 15 months, the Lorton Arts Foundation plans to convert the prison dormitories and gymnasium into artists' studios, galleries, performance spaces and a museum documenting a key part of the prison's history.

The county, which bought the Lorton site from the federal government in 1998, is leasing a portion of the old prison to the arts foundation. It also approved the sale of $26 million in revenue bonds to finance the initial redevelopment. The bonds are backed by revenue expected from studio leases and fundraising by the foundation and through state tax credits for historic preservation.

At a brief ceremony yesterday, Hyland turned a symbolic giant key over to foundation officials to mark the transfer of the property. He expressed amazement at the transformation underway in and around the old prison, which now boasts a golf course -- the 15th hole was once the guard's target and tear-gas practice range -- a new high school and scores of high-end, single-family homes. A Cold War museum is also planned for the area, which includes two former Nike missile sites.

"This is absolutely a remarkable day" for Fairfax and the Mount Vernon district, Hyland said as he stood in the old prison gym that also served as the visitation center. (Signs still spell out some of the rules, ostensibly to prevent smuggling: No baby carriages, and infants limited to two changes of diapers.)

Had someone suggested just a few years ago that such a turnaround was possible, "I would have said they were smoking something -- and not cigarettes," he added.

Yesterday was the public's first look at the nascent arts center as well as remnants of the prison itself. Pat Richter, a real estate agent in the area, recalled that she would always speed up a little when she drove by the grounds at night. The prison's conversion, she said, has been a boon to the community. "It's been long-needed," she said.

"There are possibilities here," said Karen Ching, a painter who shows her art at a gallery in Occoquan.

One issue has yet to be resolved by foundation officials: what to do with art left behind by the prisoners themselves. In addition to cell art and graffiti, elaborate murals and paintings adorn some of the now-abandoned buildings. Officials said that the works have been inventoried but that no decision has been made on whether to include them as part of the arts campus.

The prison began as the progressive brainchild of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Occoquan Workhouse was opened in 1910 as an effort to rehabilitate mostly nonviolent "misdemeanants and drunkards" by moving them from squalid urban jails into an open-air agricultural environment. Inmates raised livestock, ran a dairy and baked the bricks that made up many of the buildings that the artists will use.

To evoke some of the prison's history, volunteers dressed as suffragists, who were imprisoned for 60 days in 1917 after picketing the White House. Their incarceration is considered a catalyzing event in women's struggle for the right to vote. Foundation officials want to devote the museum largely to the story of the suffragist movement.

"That's a story that has not been told," said Tina Leone, the foundation's chief executive.

But the focus on the suffragists would exclude much of the prison's less triumphant history. From its progressive roots, it grew into a massive penal complex, housing 7,300 inmates by 1995 -- more than 40 percent over capacity. The "war on drugs" filled its cells and dormitories with first offenders serving long sentences. And the Adjustment Unit, envisioned as the site for the museum, was the subject of multiple class-action lawsuits in the 1970s and '80s on the part of prisoners alleging abusive treatment.

Leone acknowledged "the unsavory part" of the prison's legacy, which she called "a mirror to what was happening outside the walls." Still, she said, there is no venue outside of Seneca Falls, N.Y. -- site of the first women's rights convention in 1848 -- dedicated to the suffragists' story. It is appropriate, she said, that Washington should have such a place.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company