|by Debbie Robison|
|DEVELOPMENT OF A PROGRESSIVE-ERA, MODEL PENAL SYSTEM|
Due to a clamor for
reform in the penal methods, and overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at
One objective of the new workhouse and reformatory was to
create a model penal system for replication across the
Progressive-era reform advocated training prisoners for a trade to enable them to obtain employment following their release, making prisons self-supporting through use of prison labor, and providing a wholesome and uplifting environment. District jail Warden McKee was an advocate of reform, stating:
Instead of sending young men and women to the jail for workhouse, it would be more humane for the future citizenship of the country to send them to an institution conducted along the lines of your National Training School for Boys, where they could be taught trades of usefulness…Instead of building jails and workhouses, establish a big farm, where criminals can be given work and made to support themselves. Give me the prisoners that come annually to the jail and workhouse on a 500-acre farm, and I’ll make them self-supporting and turn over to the government annually a large profit, instead of having to pay out $200,000 or more for their maintenance. This would be more humane, and certainly more economical…
Implementation of the progressive ideals included encouraging the prisoners to better behavior by treating them with dignity. Superintendent W. H. Whittaker told 50 prisoners, whom he was transporting from the District jail to the site of the workhouse, that he would trust them to not attempt to break away, and was therefore not going to handcuff or shackle them. Whitaker was pleased with the success of this novel plan of handling prisoners. Whittaker also provided an incentive for good behavior: All convicts who have records for good behavior are to wear blue suits, and Mr. Whittaker believes that every man in the prison will work to win one…
The new workhouse was constructed, in an effort to advance progressive reform, without bolts or bars. The system was designed to appeal to the honor and manhood of prisoners. In 1914, Whittaker furthered progressive reform by removing Stockades and all semblance of restriction for keeping the prisoners… In actuality, though, leg-irons and handcuffs were used to discipline prisoners who broke the rules.
Whittaker repeatedly, but without apparent success, lobbied for indeterminate sentences and parole. His objective was to use sentence length to control good behavior, and believed that short sentences did not allow for sufficient time for reform.
|ESTABLISHMENT OF THE WORKHOUSE|
District commissioners solicited proposals for sites for a new jail and reformatory. To be considered, a site had to be not less than 1,000 acres, and was evaluated based on suitability for farming and price.
European agricultural prisons had already been established in many countries, and were looked upon as learning opportunities. Jail commissioners may have stipulated the 1,000 acre requirement based on what past experience showed was the capacity of the land.
Whenever a new prison is to be constructed the authorities should buy ample land upon which to erect it - not less than an acre for every prisoner, counting the maximum population…
After inspecting several proposed sites, Maj. V. Judson
Maj. Judson explained that the site has a considerable amount of timber on it; has a stone quarry, and is high and healthy. From the quarry stone can be obtained for road making and like purposes. The soil of the tract, he said, has been tested by experts from the Department of Agriculture, who gave it a favorable report. The site furnishes a means of keeping the prisoners busy at cutting timber, quarrying stone, or tilling the soil. It is the intention of the commissioners to make the institution self-supporting, if possible.
The public was under the impression that condemnation proceedings would be required to acquire the land; however, Auditor Tweedale did not believe that would be necessary since J. L. Dawson, the owner of the tract, felt he had clear titles. As it turned out, condemnation proceedings were necessary to settle the price. Likely, J. L. Dawson had pulled together an assemblage of tracts owned by himself and others, many of whom may be related. In addition to J. L. Dawson, the land owners were L. A. Denty, T. D. Violett, George W. and James T. Dawson, Katherine C. Holt, W. S. Lynn, George A. Selecman, Julia F. Selecman, and Redman and G. A. Selecman.
Construction began on temporary prisoner quarters, consisting of tents surrounded by a stockade fence, in June 1910.
A stockade 490 feet long and 116
feet wide has been laid out close by the edge of the
Design plans for the workhouse were underway in early 1910. Although Snowden Ashford was the Municipal Architect responsible for the workhouse, Leon E. Dessez was the special architect who was appointed by the commissioners to draft plans for the new workhouse. By winter, temporary frame buildings were to be built at the site of the future permanent quarters. Prisoners were sent to a convict camp at the workhouse quarry to begin quarrying stone for the foundations of the temporary buildings and for road construction.
|LOCAL OPTIMISM CHANGES TO REGRET|
Many landowners in the Occoquan area offered their land for sale for the workhouse and reformatory. Local residents were optimistic that the institutions would revitalize their community.
Nearly all of the land owners and
tenants in the vicinity…are of the opinion that the location of the two
institutions will greatly benefit their property. It is explained by rivermen
that the proposition of running a boat to these places will mean the erection
of several modern wharfs, which are greatly needed. Others say that it
eventually will mean the extension of the electric car line, and make traffic
Prior to the start of any construction at the workhouse, the
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to help protect the
local community from having prisoners released in the area. The Board asked
that the prisoners be transported out of
Within six months of the arrival of the first prisoner, the community suffered in fear for their safety, allegedly caused by the progressive reform methods employed at the workhouse.
Quite the most serious feature of the system in vogue at the workhouse is the so-called honor system, putting the convicts on parole, or something similar, and sending them over the public roads, without any sort of a guard or keeper, in pairs and in large squads. It is not safe for a woman or child to travel unattended, and even the men go armed. The striped clothes of the convicts have been abandoned and the convicts clothed in a uniform and cap of cadet blue…
Joseph M. Springman, Sr., proprietor of a general merchandise store at Lorton Station complained that business had fallen off due to the conditions. Many of the families left the area and put their homes up for sale. At least three sales fell through due to the location of the workhouse.
Prior to purchasing the land for the workhouse, the
It was discovered, after prisoners began clearing the land,
that the site selected on the
In March 1912, eight firms submitted bids to furnish the District with 60 tons of fire clay and 300,000 fire bricks to be used in construction of the brick kilns. A new brick-making unit was constructed in 1925 that expanded the capabilities of the brick-making operations.
In addition to common bricks and rough texture face bricks, hollow tile can be made…Introduction of the manufacture of hollow tile at the brickyard will effect a savings of at least $400 on each dormitory building constructed. Operation of the new brick machinery with electric motor drive will effect a savings in coal…
When plans for permanent buildings for the reformatory were
prepared in 1919, it was estimated that 4,000,000 bricks from the workhouse
would be utilized.
It was reported in 1927, that workhouse prisoners made 4,283,000 bricks during
the year. A clay storage shed, with a capacity of 60 days’ supply of clay,
enabled operations to continue uninterrupted during the winter. 
Prisoner manufactured brick was sold to the District government for use in municipal
construction; for example, sewers, engine houses, and school houses, including
|ESTABLISHMENT OF THE REFORMATORY|
It was always the intent of the U. S. Congress to construct both a workhouse and reformatory. A study by the jail commission, authorized by Congress to investigate the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions of the District jail and workhouse, recommended both institutions. Each was to house a different class of convict.
A reformatory for all who must be sentenced to confinement, and who, nevertheless, are hopeful cases.
A workhouse for those who must be confined and who are not proper subjects for reformatory treatment, and yet whose offenses are not such as to require that they be sent to a penitentiary.
Those not considered candidates for reform were sent federal penitentiaries. The class of convict slated for the reformatory and workhouse flip-flopped by the time the reformatory was being constructed. The workhouse received convicts with the shorter sentences. At the time the reformatory was being planned, it was desired to relocate long-term prisoners, then confined to federal prisons in other parts of the country, closer to the District in keeping with local ideals of reformation.
To obviate the necessity of sending long-term prisoners to penal institutions in various parts of the United States, all possible effort is being made to rush the construction of the temporary quarters for the care of that class of convicts at Occoquan, Va.
Construction of the reformatory was delayed after the site
selected was deemed too close to
District Building Commissioner Oliver P. Newman made a study of penal institutions in the south in preparation to the formulation of plans for the reformatory.
Commissioner Newman says that the committee having in charge the drafting of plans for the reformatory hopes to take a forward step that has not yet been taken in any other part of the United States, and to produce a penal institution without stockades, locks, bars, punishment, silence, or other restrictions usually associated with such institution. Considerable progress in this direction has already been made at the Occoquan workhouse…
Superintendent Whittaker made suggestions on the design of the reformatory to Commissioner Newman that he felt would best meet the needs of the reformatory. He accompanied his written suggestions with pencil sketches of the conceptual buildings.
Work began on temporary frame buildings in February 1915. Whittaker was placed in charge of construction, which was carried out primarily by workhouse labor. It was expected that the temporary buildings would be ready for occupancy in July 1916.
Plans for the construction of 29 permanent brick buildings were submitted in 1919 by Superintendent Charles Foster. The buildings were to be constructed by prisoners under the direction of C. B. Backus, constructing engineer.
Superintendent Foster plans to make the group of buildings the “world’s most advanced penal colony.” 
The workhouse reform plan employed the concept of using prison labor in agricultural pursuits to provide food, fresh air, and work for the prisoners. When the District appropriated funds to purchase the land for the workhouse, they also appropriated funds to purchase farm equipment. By August 1911, 100 acres of farmland were under cultivation, with the hope of adding an additional 50 to 100 acres per year. To enrich the poor soil (once thought to be good), 400 to 500 loads of sweepings from the District streets and stables were brought to the workhouse farm in the six barges owned by the District, and used as fertilizer.
Guards employed at the workhouse were selected based upon their abilities for specialized work. The tilling of the land was supervised by guards who were also experienced practical farmers. In addition to vegetables, the prisoners raised cows to provide milk, and cattle and hogs for butchering. Chickens were raised within enclosures on the farm. 
products not consumed at the workhouse and reformatory were shipped to the
District for use at other institutions, such as the jail and
Eugene Barrett, who was in charge of raising food for workhouse inmates, won prizes at the Prince William County fair for the tallest corn and the best alfalfa, which was also raised as winter fodder for the workhouse cattle. The house was likely named after Mr. Barrett.
By 1931, the reformatory had a large orchard; however, from 1944 to 1949, the orchards lost money four out of the five years. Consequently, 1,200 unproductive apple trees were chopped down so the land could be devoted to more productive agricultural activities. In 1956, a reformatory apple orchard was described as covering 100 acres.
Uplift Prisoners,” The
 “Jail Menace to City,” Post, February 16, 1909, p. 1.
“Convicts Not Handcuffed,”
 “New District Workhouse a Jail Minus Bolts and Bars, August 13, 1911, p. 32.
 “Favors Parole Law,” Post, September 24, 1914, p. 14.
 “Six Fell
for Penal Sites,” Post; “Jail Menace
to City,” Post, February 16, 1909, p.
1; “To Uplift Prisoners,”
for Land Hearing,”
 FXDB F7(162):212, March 17, 1910.
“Building Own Prison,”
to Begin Workhouse,”
 “The Convict Camp,” Post, June 17, 1910, p. 3.
Stone for City,”
“Meeting of Board of Supervisors,”
Cause of Suit,”
in Fear of Convicts,”
May Make Brick,”
 “Bid on
New Brick Kilns,”
Big Model Jail at Lorton,”
District Workhouse a Jail Minus Bolts and Bars,”
Brick and Mule Bids,” Post, June 3,
1915, p. 14; “
Big Occoquan Tract,”
Back From South,”
“Discuss Occoquan Addition,”
Big Model Jail at Lorton,”
“Deficiency Bill is In,”
District Workhouse a Jail Minus Bolts and Bars,”
“Arraigns Penal System,” Post, December
10, 1915, p. 5; “Occoquan to Aid Poor,”
“Prisoners Proving Adept at Making District Auto Tags,”
Grows Tall at Lorton Workhouse,”
Report Hits District in One Respect, Peak Says,” Post, July 28, 1931, p. 4; “Fruitless – 600 Weary Apple Trees to
Escapes Abductor Near Lorton,