In 1910 the U.S. Government acquired land along the Occoquan River in Southeastern Fairfax County, Virginia. This site became the Occoquan workhouse, designed first as a workhouse and later as a reformatory for the District of Columbia. Inmates worked on a 1,200 acre farm raising hogs, cattle and chickens and built many of the buildings in the complex including the dorms, dining hall, laundry, bake shop, ice plant and hospital. Two sections were added later, the Lorton Reformatory in 1913 and finally the penitentiary in the 1930’s historical documents relate.
For the last 75 years the Lorton prison housed prisoners from Washington DC- the often poor inner-city blacks were bussed south from the crime ridden neighborhoods and the DC jail into rural Virginia where the prison resided. The complex consisted of approximately seven compounds. From Big Lorton, which was considered the hill where the modular intake unit was to the Wall, the maximum security compound to Occoquan the medium prison to the minimum down the road to Youth Center 1 and Youth Center 2 where youthful offenders were housed.
The vast complex was home to over 7,000 prisoners in the mid 90s, 44 percent over its capacity. Tales of corruption, vice and violence abounded concerning life at Lorton. It was known as the worst of the worst. The toughest prison in America, Where allegedly druglords like Keith “Fly” Gaffney who was featured in Don Diva magazine held sway controlling both prisoners and guards alike. The prison was so corrupt that prisoners had access to guns, knives and an assortment of weapons from which to battle each other and the guards. Drugs and prostitution were rampant. It was even said that the female guards used to sell their bodies to prisoners. And escapes were the norm rather then the rarity. To separate fact from fiction though and rumor from actuality we contacted some real O.G.’s in the know. Convicts who served time at the notorious prison. To give us their take on Lorton.
“Lorton was a place for the fittest and only strong men survive,” says Oscar a penitentiary veteran who did time there back in the 90s. His homeboy Tank concurs, “In DC every man is for himself,” he says. “So it’s either you or him. Due to such dangerous people it makes ones heart hard and cold so you don’t have a problem with putting the knife in people.” This was the mindset of the prisoners at Lorton and ex-cons in the city and the administration wasn’t much better.
“Corruption first started at the head. The mayor of Washington DC was corrupt so his institutions were as well, Tank says of noted crackhead mayor Marion Barry. “Lorton was a corrupt criminal reformatory. Being in Lorton was like being on the streets.” But the corruption at Lorton eventually led to its closure.
By the 1930’s the prison began looking more like it did before closing in 2002. It grew to an extensive 3,200 acre complex, historical documents relate. The District of Columbia Department of Corrections did not have the funds needed to construct housing for the exploding population or to maintain the facilities and adequate staffing levels. So the federal government agreed to take over expenses for DC prisoners in 1997 as part of a bailout of the financially strapped district. The agreement meant the Lorton complex would close and thousands of DC inmates would be absorbed into the federal system.
“In May 1996 the first shipment of prisoners went to a CCA in Youngstown Ohio,” Oscar says. The prison run by Corrections Corp of America experienced problems from the jump. Two inmates were stabbed to death, 40 assaults were reported, six prisoners escaped in a 1998 breakout and inmates won a $1.65 million class action lawsuit that accused guards of excessive force. These were hardened convicts from Lorton. They knew the score and the routine. The CCA prison was closed as DC prisoners were shipped into the federal system.
In the federal system rumors of the incoming DC prisoners were rampant. “They’re gonna take over the compound,” prisoners said. “Don’t let them out of the hole,” they told the warden. “They’re gonna fuck ship up,” they said. The Lorton prison had such a fearsome reputation that the federal prisoners didn’t want to be on the same compound with the DC convicts. But the DC dudes had different ideas.
“I thought it was going to be a good thing to get away from Lorton,” Dingus another penitentiary veteran says. “But the rumors about the feds have not panned out, especially dealing with the parole.” Tank has a different take, “Well, when they started shipping us I was thinking the jail conditions was going to be a lot better, but no, the feds are some shit.” Only Oscar had serious regrets on leaving Lorton, “I was thinking, oh, shit, there goes the neighborhood.” But what was the real reason Lorton closed? The corruption? The financial difficulties of DC? Here’s a different angle.
In July 2002 Fairfax County received title to 2,440 acres of the Lorton complex and was tasked with the challenging decisions of how to use the property to its fullest potential as a world-class asset for Fairfax county residents. “Lorton sits on some valuable ground on top of hills and the locals wanted their land so they could build shopping malls and other merchantable ventures.” Oscar says hitting it on the head. A mix of retail, residential and educational uses were planned and have come together with a school being built and a tract of million dollar houses being built on the former prison land. And what has been the result of the city inmates being transferred to far-flung prisons away from their families in the Bureau of Prisons?
“It is very stressful and burdensome on me and my family. And very expensive,” Dingus says. “The telephone is about 1000 times the price then Lorton.” Oscar echoes this sentiment, “I thought it was downright unfair. I just didn’t complain because I knew there were others in the boat with me. All of us DC dudes want to be closer to home. It’s aggravating we have to plan a visit a couple of months before the actual visits occur opposed to getting visits four days a week down Lorton.” Dingus goes even further saying he and his homies feel “helpless, voiceless, and disenfranchised” being flung all across the nation and far from home.”
Another aspect of the prison closing was the loss of jobs for the already low income DC community. Dingus says a lot of the guards were “devastated, they felt like they weren’t qualified to do anything else.” Oscar elaborates, “A corporal down Lorton made over 80k a year. Wardens in the feds are around that much.” So the closing hurt the financially strapped residents of the District. “The staff at Lorton was some mixture of DC, Maryland, and Virginia C/O’s but mostly DC officers.” Tank says and it wasn’t uncommon for staff to have relatives incarcerated at the prison they worked at.
“Convicts had family members as guards doing time with them.” Tank says “But things like that had to be kept quiet,” Oscar relates. “I had a cousin who worked in my dorm where I slept.” And this led to corruption inside the prison. “With family, friends and loved ones working as guards there was nothing one couldn’t get. The convicts ran the joint.” Tank says. And given the choice most of the DC prisoners would rather be back at Lorton.
“I would prefer Lorton,” Dingus says. “So that I could see my family more often.” And Oscar says, “If I could choose to do two years here or eight years in Lorton I would prefer Lorton. Everything was convenient and simple. I would’ve been home five years ago if I were down Lorton. The reason is the feds are hitting me with their guidelines.” But Dingus admits that “Some like it because you do not have the violence, but some hate it.” Because it’s like Oscar says, “We all know that the feds is the home of the snitches. So we are certain to watch and move accordingly.”
And in looking back the DC convicts reminisce. “The joint was sweet.” Tank says. “You could sneak or get a gun in a food package. There was a lot of murder, robbery and drugs.” Oscar concurs, “Convicts aren’t going to stop making because they come to jail. Especially, a DC convict. It’s in our nature as Washingtonians to simply go hard as a man.” But Dingus keeps it real, “People just so happen to fall victim to the hands of the violent elements and un-calculated extortion and it changes you, makes you harder, not better or worse, just harder.” And that about sums up the Lorton experience.