A mass of humanity had jammed inside the Lorton prison gym, a sea of faces swept up into the bleachers and cordoned off from the fashion show runway with ropes and watched by armed guards.
A Metro bus had pulled up to the front gates and 20 women dressed in their finest silks and furs unboarded. As they filed into the gym, a roar went up. The inmates whistled and clapped and their standing ovation inched them forward for a closer look.
This was a test. Inmate behavior at the prison in recent months had become so disorderly that visiting privileges had been canceled twice, and there had not been anything like a fashion show to come this way since 1980.
"The fellas know that if they mess up, that's it," said Joseph Burrows, an inmate who holds the title "commissioner of volleyball," and whose recreation committee helped organize the show. "If all goes well, it will be the talk of the prison and go a long way to keep things cool down here."
Some of the inmates had not been with a woman in 10 years. Now, their heads were bobbing on spring-like necks. As some scrambled for pencils and paper to write "love notes" others screamed out every feminine name they could think of. "Betty? Sheila? Ernestine? Sharon? Is that you, baby?" an inmate cried. Another prisoner crawled past guards to an area where the women were seated. "I just want to talk to you," he said with grateful humility. But just as he began his life's story, a guard whisked him away.
The fashion show was about to begin. The women, aged 17 to 22, had been warming up to the sounds of Mother's Band and Show of Southeast Washington, led by bass player Betty Green, who brought the inmates to their feet with her opening admonition, "Have no fear, mother is here."
The fashion show runway, composed of a row of prison dining tables, came alive with legs, high heels, swishing skirts and flowing hair. The inmates swooned. "Oh, baby," one inmate crooned as he feigned a heart attack.
The women were all volunteers from Betty Green's Southeast Washington neighborhood and had come to entertain at the prison despite warnings from friends that they could be taken hostage -- or worse. One woman summed up the feelings of others by saying that just because the men were in Lorton didn't mean that they were all bad.
Another woman remarked as they prepared to board the bus to Lorton, "Most of us the volunteers grew up in this neighborhood together. And we played by ourselves because there didn't seem to be that many boys our age around."
When they got to Lorton, they discovered one reason why.
Most of the women said they had never been to Lorton before and expressed awe at the sight of so many black men. Entering the prison, they huddled together under the spotlight of the watchtower, were searched and sent on to perform. What they thought could have been a humiliating experience turned out to be a source of joy and pride.
"These guys are dying for entertainment," said Wayne Wilkins, the prison's recreation supervisor. "Most people are afraid to come down. But I have to tell you, these guys are on their best behavior tonight."
A football game was on television, but nearly half of Lorton's 1,400 medium-security inmates turned up for the fashion show. Movies are shown three times a week at Lorton, but the gym had never been this packed. Beaming with pride, the inmates were electrified. Some began offering to help clean up the gym. Others were so exhilarated that they tried to talk guards into letting them take the bus back to the city with the women. "They feel good because somebody cares," Wilkins said.
When the show was over, some inmates hurled notes and blew kisses. The women had become more comfortable now and were responding with playful banter. "Will you be my girlfriend when I get out?" one inmate said to a fashion model.
"I can't, this is my husband over here," she replied. On his best behavior, the inmate respectfully conceded, "You got a good man." Then, stroking his beard, added, "I would marry him, too."