For a Relic of Lorton, An Uncertain Future
Sunday, December 17, 2006
The crucifix bears the unmistakable mark of a man in captivity and still alive. There is no wound in Jesus's right side, where he was pierced by a spear.
This cross with a life-size figure of Christ, built by inmates, stood for 45 years in the chapel at the former Lorton penitentiary. But with the closure of the southern Fairfax County prison in 2001, the crucifix, left unattended, began showing signs of water damage and other deterioration. It now sits in a climate-controlled warehouse in Forestville, wrapped in protective, acid-free material, awaiting restoration.
That much is certain. What hasn't been decided is what the county will do with the religious treasure of one of the nation's toughest prisons once it's cleaned up.
"The final disposition is going to be a challenge, because the original use is really not there anymore," said Chris Caperton, a county planner coordinating the transformation of the 2,323-acre Lorton property and its 300-odd buildings to parkland, residential development and an arts center. "We haven't put a value on it."
The crucifix is completely homegrown. Farmer Thomas, a career criminal who was serving a five-to-17-year term for forgery, counterfeiting and other crimes, came to the attention of a prison chaplain in 1956, according to newspaper and magazine accounts at the time.
Thomas had taken a mail-order course in drafting while serving a previous stint at San Quentin. The chaplain asked him to design a chapel at Lorton. Thomas had never been inside a church.
Williston Knorl, an inmate who was serving 10 years for robbery, sculpted a crucifix of plaster of Paris. His model for the cross was Herbie Hal, a murderer serving a life sentence. The cross was made with timbers on the prison property.
The inmates painted the Jesus figure with gruesome bruises and cuts smeared with blood. But the side wound was missing.
Other touches of realism included dirty toenails and, according to an account published in Time magazine, flies purchased at a local novelty store.
The 1,200-seat chapel, built of bricks that inmates fired in prison kilns, was dedicated in September 1961. The chapel's congregation of about 2,000 members was composed of Lorton inmates. The chapel served Christians, Muslims and Jews in different sections.
The fate of the crucifix is the subject of various recommendations by groups reviewing the future of 80 acres on the site's southern end. The chapel has been placed on the historic register, but it won't necessarily be used as a church.
Today, the crucifix is missing its crown of thorns, and the fingers on one hand are badly damaged, Caperton said. Jesus's arms and legs remain misshapen to show the stress of an impaled body hanging from oak logs. But he said he expects the figure to be fully restored, at a cost to the county of $5,000 to $10,000.