Documentary by former Lorton inmate looks beyond prison’s violent reputation


“I’m tired, I can’t take no more,” says the prisoner repeatedly; he is in a near-catatonic state of glassy-eyed despair as his cellmates try to comfort him. The emotionally raw scene is part of a stage play from the ’70s, produced and performed by inmates of Lorton Reformatory, the notorious D.C.-area prison that closed in 2001. Preserved on an old VHS tape, it is one of many gems unearthed by Karim Mowatt, director of the new documentary “Lorton: Prison of Terror.”

“When you hear about Lorton, it’s always negative,” says Mowatt, a former inmate at the prison who is now an independent filmmaker in D.C. “I wanted to document the place that we knew, the good and the bad.” Mowatt, 51, wrote, directed, narrated and scored the film; he also used $20,000 of his own money to fund it. There have been 10 sold-out screenings in D.C., and in September it was featured in the Prince George’s Film Festival. The documentary is streaming on Vimeo and Prime Video.

Among the interviewees in the film is Raymond “Shorty” Coates, 63, who pointed Mowatt to the last copy of the VHS tape, which came from the playwright. Coates served 24 years for armed robbery, mostly at Lorton. When he arrived as a teenager in the late ’70s, he was sent to Youth Center I, one of eight facilities that housed prisoners at a complex that grew to 3,500 acres 20 miles southwest of D.C. Known as “Gladiator School” for its extreme violence, the Youth Center’s welcome for Coates was hot grease thrown in his face while he was on kitchen detail. Through the years, he always looked forward to the play, broadcast on closed-circuit TV for inmates every Christmas. It was titled “Holidays … Hollow Days.”

“I wanted to help Karim tell his story,” Coates told me. “Here’s a young brother who comes from where I come from, and he’s bold enough to try his hand. This is our spirit getting renewed in these times, for a new generation.”

The film outlines Lorton’s strange journey from utopian prison farm to reviled penal colony. Located on a hilly site in Virginia near the Occoquan River, Lorton was first developed in the early 1900s as a Progressive Era experiment. The vision was to offer rehabilitation through farm work and lax security in the countryside for inmates from the crowded D.C. jail. The open-air, campus-style setting included low-slung brick dormitories, walkways and courtyards.

By the ’60s, though, the Lorton complex had become overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded: a holding pen for an ever-surging inmate population numbering 10,000. The film details the staggering statistics: From 1960 to 1996, there were 1,000 escapes, 25 riots, over 5,000 assaults, and more than 50 inmates and several guards killed. It became the scourge of politicians and area residents, and in 1997 a federal mandate began the closure process.

The relative freedom of movement enjoyed by Lorton inmates left many vulnerable to altercations. Mowatt obtained security-camera footage depicting the gruesome aftermaths of several stabbings. Some of the homemade weapons included lawnmower blades sanded into swords.

Mowatt dug up newspaper clippings at local libraries, and they appear on screen to help drive forward the narration: “Inmates Run the Prison, Officials Admit” (1972), “Lorton Called Unfit for Humans” (1974), “Lorton ‘Prison of Terror’ ” (1974). The film also includes TV news footage of a 1986 riot, which burned down a medium-high-security section of the prison that averaged 200 stabbings and five killings a year.

As counterpoint to the chaos, Lorton had another distinction: It boasted an abundance of rehabilitation programs. Most were conceived and carried out by the inmates, many of whom came from D.C.’s most impoverished and disenfranchised neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and were often scapegoats of draconian drug policies that doled out stiffer sentences to minorities. Besides Inner Voices, the theater group that performed “Holidays … Hollow Days,” the list included singing groups like the Amazing Gospel Souls; traveling sports teams; GED and law classes; welding and carpentry; garment and sewing workshops; and concerts by Frank Sinatra, Fugazi and ex-inmate Chuck Brown.

These often unheralded programs were spearheaded by Lorton’s “thinking guys,” as Coates calls them. By highlighting their work, the film goes beyond the stereotypical portrait of the prison’s violence and offers stories of redemption.

To make his film, Mowatt had to break back into the prison where he served time on drug charges at different periods starting in 1989 when he was 17 — eventually spending a total of more than two decades behind bars. He was surprised but pleased to find the site hadn’t been bulldozed; instead many of the century-old brick buildings had been repurposed for luxury condos and an arts center.

In 2020, Mowatt and his crew climbed through a fence at Lorton after construction workers had left for the day. Mowatt conducted interviews with ex-inmates in their old cells; he also filmed from his own.

For a photo shoot for this article in October, Mowatt and Coates visited the development — which is called, somewhat ironically, Liberty Crest and features views of the former guard towers and a street named Reformatory Way. It was the first time Coates had been back since Lorton had closed. He was thrilled to see the pull-up bars where he used to start his mornings, and he also took note of the walkways, scrubbed of the blood spots of yore, where he’d had fights with other inmates.

“It’s amazing to me that they took this dark, dusty and dangerous place and made it into almost a work of art,” Coates told me later. Mowatt says he’s also impressed with the “creative” repurposing of the prison complex. He says that razing the site would have further erased Lorton from the historical record, and he hopes his documentary will keep the prison’s story from being forgotten.

He says he’s already seen the film’s effect as salve at post-screening Q&A sessions. Families and friends — many of them mothers, wives, sisters and girlfriends of former Lorton inmates — tell him the film has been a blessing. “They say they didn’t have the slightest idea of what these guys were really going through inside prison,” he says. “After seeing the film, they understand. They’re like, ‘Oh, this is why you came home a different person.’ It’s given a lot of people closure.”

Eddie Dean is a writer in Maryland.

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