The Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton Hosts Prison (Re) Form Show

The Workhouse Arts Center’s buildings and grounds have a rich story full of change, struggle, reflection, and growth. The current Prison (Re) Form Show will be up until December 31, 2017, and is intended to reflect the diverse and many-faceted histories of the center.

The Early History of the Workhouse Arts Center

This arts center’s building and grounds have played a major historic role in the lives of prisoners and women in the United States. In 1908, a Penal Commission was formed under President Theodore Roosevelt. The issues of concern for the commission were unsanitary conditions and overcrowding in the District of Columbia jail, as well as the D.C. workhouse. At the same time as the commission was evaluating these issues, a prison reform movement was growing which advocated for prisoner employment training. The idea was that the prisoners could gain job skills and the prison could make money off of their work, funding the running of the penal institution. This premise and plan are still being used and are very controversial to this day.

In 1910 Congress and the Penal Commission agreed on purchasing land that was to become, through many stages, a prisoner Workhouse and later the Lorton Correctional Facility. The current art center site explains that the original “Workhouse was designed to rehabilitate and change prisoners through fresh air, good food, honest work, and fair treatment.” A limited number of prisoners arrived on the site along the Occoquan River via barge and, while living in tents and with the help of mules, they constructed the first wooden buildings. They later made bricks and used them to build replacement dormitories and additional administrative buildings. Their bricks were sent to DC and used in public works such as firehouses and schools as well. The work camp took on an agricultural focus and ran cultivated fields; pasture land; an orchard and cannery; a poultry farm; hog ranch; slaughterhouse; dairy; blacksmith shop; sawmill; and feed, hay and storage barns.

Who Were the Prisoners who Worked at the Workhouse?

The men who were sent to the Workhouse had committed misdemeanors. During this period, this category of crime included simple assault and public drunkenness, among others. Women were also sentenced to the Workhouse–the Women’s Workhouse opened in 1912. Women at the Workhouse had been found guilty of crimes such as prostitution, vagrancy, and intoxication. Also of historical significance was that early suffragists were sent to this Workhouse. About 70 members of the National Women’s Party including the famous women’s rights leader Lucy Burns were incarcerated at this location. The suffragists were mistreated and tortured during their imprisonment, which increased national awareness of their cause.

When Did the Workhouse Close?

The Workhouse went through several incarnations before closing and becoming an arts center. It ran for over 90 years as the Workhouse and spread to cover 3200 acres. The latest version of the Workhouse with a penitentiary, youth program, and reformatory closed in 1968. It was then a government run alcoholic rehabilitation center and in 1983 became a medium-security prison. In 1997, it was federally required that the Lorton Correctional Facility close due to the over-crowding and poor organizational structure for which it had become infamous. These reasons are of course not so different from some of the reasons the Workhouse was started in 1910.

In 2002, Fairfax County bought over 200 acres of the property. In 2004 The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the Lorton Arts Foundation’s plan to use 55 acres for a cultural arts center, which opened as the Workhouse Arts Center in 2008.

The Prison (Re) Form Show

The Workhouse Arts Center site describes this exhibit in this way:

The outdoor sculptures will engage in conversations of current and historic significance related to the penal system, the Suffragists, the use of labor and the contemporary state of prisons in the United States.

Here are some of the included works:

The piece above, Escape, is by Foon Sham, who is a professor of Art at the University of Maryland. He has had many solos shows and his work has been exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Art in America Magazine, and in many other venues and publications.

Above is An Hour Before Dawn, by Sassona Norton. Here’s an excerpt from her artist statement on

I sculpt the figure to express yearning. I am intrigued by inner conflicts and the ability to overcome what seems insurmountable…Connectedness is what we have lost–and yearn for… Although it stems from absence, yearning holds the promise that in the conflict between reality and desire – desire wins to take us beyond current boundaries.

Above is Memory, by Charlie Brouwer.

He has participated in at least 239 exhibitions and the artist statement on his site explains,

I have been making art since 1968 and I feel like I am just getting started. My work ranges from small indoor gallery pieces to large outdoor sculptures to indoor and outdoor installations and public art projects…

The Workhouse Arts Center offers affordable studio space to over 100 artists and has six studio buildings, galleries, and a theater. They support visitor interaction with artists and also offer and support performing arts, education classes, workshops, and other community events.

The center is open for free (donations accepted), along with The Workhouse Prison Museum, from Wednesday to Sunday. The weekends of October 14, 21, and from the 28 through the 31 they will be holding a Madhaunter’s Madhouse, a haunted maze with thrilling special effects (admission fee required).

Julia Travers


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