Michael Anderson was uneasy about the quiet. At midafternoon, standing in a courtyard, the corrections officer expected to hear the yelling and cursing of hundreds of men.
"There would be lots of different noise, the men communicating with each other, shouting out each other's nicknames," Anderson said one recent afternoon. "I'd hear the clang of the big keys locking the outside gates. It's strange to see the gates and doors standing open."
The Lorton Correctional Complex, a facility that has housed hundreds of thousands of District men and women since 1910, is becoming a ghost town. The colonial-style Occoquan Workhouse that housed District prisoners for almost 90 years is empty now, the inmates dispersed to other states as the District complies with a federal mandate to close the sprawling prison in Fairfax County by 2001.
There are probably few former inmates who recall Lorton fondly, but the workhouse and 135 other prison buildings nevertheless are likely to be preserved as a piece of history. The General Services Administration, owner of the 3,000-acre site, is recommending that the buildings on a 552-acre tract be preserved as a historic district, according to a report to be released soon.
The cavernous gymnasium of the workhouse still smells of sweaty socks. The cafeteria has the lingering fragrance of onions, and the dormitories have a musty odor. The huge rooms are empty. On the walls are uplifting murals painted by prisoners: One shows a red rose cradling a smiling family, a black man, woman and child.
The historic designation would make it much more difficult for anyone to demolish the buildings in the center of the last large, rural parcel of land in the county, a prime area for development. The Virginia state government determines whether sites get historic designation.
For many in Fairfax County, the closing of the much-maligned D.C.-run facility can't happen quickly enough. They long ago grew weary of the poorly managed prison, where escapes and riots often made news and guards sometimes were charged with crimes themselves.
Fairfax County became the home of Washington's prison system before the city had home rule. The federal government found the Fairfax site, acquired the land and financed the prison.
It was built during the Progressive Era at the turn of the century, when reformers worked to improve conditions at institutions such as insane asylums and prisons. The theory was that if people were put in a wholesome environment, they would thrive and improve morally. The workhouse and reformatory originally had no bars or locks. Prisoners were expected to improve themselves through hard outdoor work on the 1,200-acre farm, where hogs, cattle and chickens were raised.
By the 1940s, bars and locks had been installed but the farm operation continued, at least in part, until two years ago. The reformatory and maximum security are still filled with D.C. prisoners. The District has agreed to have the buildings emptied by the end of 2001.
The land, then as now, belongs to the federal government. However, federal legislation passed last year requires GSA to transfer ownership of part or all of the property to the Department of the Interior, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and the Fairfax County Park Authority. The land also could be transferred to a public or private entity in accordance with the Fairfax County re-use plan and the best interest of the United States. Just how the prison property will be divided is undecided.
Irma Clifton, a nearby resident and former Lorton program administrator, is behind the efforts to have the prison preserved. During her 25 years on the job, she was in charge of all property at Lorton that didn't belong to the prisoners. She also saved historic records and artifacts--including the electric chair, dubbed "Old Sparky"--to create a Lorton museum, which is now closed.
Clifton said generations of her family have lived near the prison and several relatives had worked there. She was born and raised in a house about a block away.
"For me, the prison is more than just bars, bricks and mortar," she said. "It has a soul."
Last week, Clifton took D.C. Corrections Director Odie Washington on a tour of a prison he has seen a dozen times since taking the job six months ago. But this time, Clifton wanted him to look beyond the razor wire, the barred windows and the armed guards in the towers. She wanted him to see her Lorton.
Standing in the grassy courtyard of the reformatory, a prison building still in use, she pointed out the "village green" and the classic colonial architecture of the four dormitories that enclose it. A covered walkway that borders the courtyard is supported by a series of graceful arches, made from the same red brick as the buildings.
"This could be used as a college campus," she said. "Think George Mason University."
Outside a vintage barn that was once part of the farm operation, she suggested, "This could be the Wolf Trap of Lorton."
Washington nodded his head to many of these suggestions, but later said he was not in a postion to implement them. "I must be the only corrections director in the country who is closing down a prison," he said.
The Interior Department is considering opening a ranch on some of the land for its wild horse and burro adoption program.
Local developers would like to build new communities on the land.
CAPTION: The Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County is closing, and local residents are pressing to have some of its 135 buildings and 3,000 acres preserved as a historic site.