Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Northern Virginia Prison Housed Political Activists

This past weekend I visited the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, the former home of the Lorton Reformatory, in Northern Virginia.  Originally opened in 1910, it is now a series of art galleries and working studios.

The artwork and various special programs that are offered by the nonprofit which runs the cultural center is impressive, but so too is the history of the prison, which closed sixteen years ago.  In addition to hardened criminals, it also housed political protesters such as Norman Mailer, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Noam Chomsky.  Mailer describes his brief incarceration there in “The Armies of the Night.” 

The grounds also housed a Nike missile site complete with nuclear warheads.   In fact, the first Nike site was the first in the nation (1954)—part of the Washington, D.C., defense program at the height of the Cold War.

But perhaps the most interesting story of the prison was the incarceration of suffragists in 1917.  Known as the Silent Sentinel, they protested outside the White House in 1917.  Among those imprisoned for their activism were Alice Paul and twenty-year-old Dorothy Day.  Some women began a hunger strike there and were force fed by order of the warden.  This is captured in the movie “Iron Jawed Angels,” a 2004 movie featuring Hilary Swank as Alice Paul.

Paul, who had been given a jail house door pendent for an earlier political imprisonment, had 81 pins created for these women protesters.  The arts center museum sells a copy.

The 19th amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920.


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