- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 20, 2001

The D.C. Correctional Facility in Lorton closed its doors yesterday after 92 years, ending a chapter in Fairfax County history.
Shortly after 3 p.m. yesterday, Joe Watson, an inmate serving time after violating parole and for assault with a deadly weapon, stepped onto the bus that would transport him to Southeast Washington's Central Detention facility.
He was the last of the final 19 prisoners that would ever set foot on the Lorton complex. Less than 15 minutes later, even the directional sign on Lorton Road telling visitors where to go had been removed. It had been up three hours earlier.
Emotions were mixed at the more than 3,000-acre complex, which at one time housed more than 12,000 prisoners. While many employees acknowledged that Lorton's usefulness had passed, many longtime employees at the federal facility worried they would soon receive "reduction in force," or RIF, letters telling them their services were no longer needed.
Some already had.
"We knew it was coming, but we don't know yet what we are doing," said Dr. Genet Desta, a physician on staff at Lorton, who will be unemployed as of today.
Dr. Desta had worked at Lorton for 11 years. While she was prepared to leave and was confident of finding work because of her profession, she said she worried about many of her colleagues who were corrections officers and had nowhere to turn.
Since it was announced that Lorton would close, the facility has reduced its work force by nearly 2,500, according to Department of Corrections Director Odie Washington.
Sgt. Cassandra Thomas, a corrections officer, worked at Lorton for 18 years. She has not heard whether or not she would be getting a RIF letter, but with a son going off to college next year she worries about herself and others.
"Can you imagine looking to start over again after working here 15 years," she said, referring to herself and her colleagues who were longtime employees at Lorton.
Sgt. Thomas said that corrections officers are the forgotten ones, and that the general public and the government do not realize what they do, nor do they care.
"It's not like the D.C. government is placing other people other places," she said. "If you've spent your whole life here watching over inmates the public can't deal with, and then not to have a job, it's devastating."
Some at the Lorton facility suggested that former corrections officers might be the best people for jobs at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, under the airport-security bill signed Monday by President Bush.
"
You've got all these people, and they would be the perfect people to hire. They would not need much training because they have been doing it all their lives," said Lt. David Gilley, who worked in various capacities at Lorton for more than four years.
Because of their training, the former corrections officers are already in tune with the ways people sneak prohibited items into places. For years corrections officers have had to make sure prisoners didn't take contraband from visitors or from the kitchen.
"Their instinct is different from the norm," Lt. Gilley said about the corrections officers.
The inmates also realized the emotion of the day. For many, moving from Lorton meant they were one step closer to eventually moving farther away from their families. While initially being placed in the facility at 1901 D St. SE, eventually the inmates will be moved to federal prisons in various locations around country, some as far away as California.
"While here, I had the opportunity to spend time with my family and raise my children when my wife would bring them," said Dennis Allston, an inmate from the District who has lived at Lorton for the last 18 years. Now all that will change.
For Ernest Tisdale, serving a sentence at Lorton became a family affair one he said brought about "humility." His father and uncle had both served sentences there, and his older son and youngest son were both serving time there before they were transferred out as a part of the relocation process. He has no idea where they are.
There was the ceremonial pomp and circumstance in the afternoon with Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Democrat, several members of Congress, and state elected officials joining corrections facility personnel praising the work of the staff at Lorton and its overall history.
"Did you know that the suffragettes served time here," asked Virginia state Sen. Linda T. Puller, Mount Vernon Democrat, referring to the women who were arrested during President Woodrow Wilson's administration for demonstrating at the White House, demanding the right to vote. "There is just so much history here."
Most officials were relieved that the time to close Lorton had finally come. When Lorton opened, they said, it was revolutionary because it gave the inmates the chance to rehabilitate themselves. Now the prisoners will hopefully be able to get attention and access to modern resources that the outdated Lorton facility lacked.
"The inmates can now get the federal rehabilitation they need, and reduce the recidivism rate they knew when they were here," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, whose district under the new redistricting plans encompasses the Lorton complex. He added the land the Lorton complex sits on will go from being an "eyesore and headache" to "a field of dreams that we all hoped it would be," referring to the plans to redevelop the area with parks, schools and a golf course.


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