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  • Sarah Sisson Rollandini

What I Learned in Lorton Prison



Screams reverberate off the brick walls of a holding cell in Lorton, Virginia. But before your mind darts to orange-clad prisoners wielding shanks, allow me to uncover the true source of the raucous. It is my four kiddos, ages 12 to 17, freely jumping from cell to cell, as they shriek with delight at the echoes.





My in-laws' home, within a quaint and quiet retirement community, is surrounded by the walls of one of the most notorious correctional facilities in the U.S. The Lorton Reformatory, a.k.a. Lorton Correctional Complex, closed in 2001 and local entrepreneurs began constructing a gated senior housing development shortly afterward. Since Virginians hold their history (any history) dear, the 3,500 acres of prison grounds, as well as the buildings themselves, became part of the D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District in 2006.

The cells which once held criminals have become homey apartments featuring granite counter tops, custom maple cabinets, and stainless steel appliances. The concrete floors which bore the heavy steps of pacing inmates are now polished and on-trend.





Between trips into DC to view the monuments and pasta dinners with Grandma and Grandpa Dini, our kids love to explore the sprawling, not-yet-finished development. A perfect setting for scary tales, their imaginations fill in the blanks for the inmates' backstories, as well as the seedy misconduct that occurred here.

I....wanna swing...from the chandelier...the chandelieeeer!

This from my 16-year old daughter, who finds the brick interior ideal, both acoustically and aesthetically, for creating music videos.

Oh Mom, pose against this wall. I love the green! says my 14-year old daughter turned social media consultant and photographer.

And the boys? They find other noises hilarious when bounced off walls and find their thrills scaling every step, wall, or ladder until they hear my panicked plea, BE CAREFUL!





Despite the sorted history and scattered construction elements, there is unmistakable beauty here. It is the promise of new beginnings. It is the certainty that nothing is beyond redemption's reach. It is a reminder: We are inspired to remake because we are being remade.

Whether we are facing a broken body or shattered spirit, in God's hands we are sure to be transformed.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19)

If humans can convert holding cells into homes, how much more is God able to accomplish in us?





Every time we visit Grandma and Grandpa, there is something new to see; a year's worth of progress unfurls as we approach the gate. A jumble of cracked concrete has become a grassy park where the kids wrestle and play tag. Graffitied walls have been sandblasted a soft burgundy.



The long-term plans for this Liberty Crest neighborhood include converting the old 2-acre reformatory baseball diamond into open green space for concerts, family movie nights, and farmers' markets. We've even heard rumors of a Trader Joe's setting up shop in the market square.

And while I look forward to each new addition and the growth it symbolizes, I'll be sad to see the last crumbling corner swept away with progress. The discolored bricks and barred doors remind me of myself--and of the potential in all of us-- to be made new in the hands of our liberator.

Until next time,

Sarah 📣

#ThingsIveLearned #redemption #grace

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