DC’s Lorton Reformatory complex closed in 2001 and is now an exclusive residential and shopping development as well as an art center and a suffrage museum. However, Karim Mowatt does not want its history as a notorious lockup to be forgotten, and his new documentary, Lorton: The Prison of Terroruses first-hand accounts of life inside to illustrate its long and often dark history.
Mowatt knows life in Lorton intimately – he spent much of the 90s imprisoned there on drug charges. He has been working on The prison of terror for a few years now and decided to split it into several parts. The first, which he shows on April 3, looks back at its history, which goes back more than a century and included increasing violence and corruption as time went on.
He interviewed former inmates, detectives and families of people who were imprisoned there to give as complete a picture as possible of life then and now, including the former dormitories that are now upscale, if possibly haunted, apartments. (People living in them told him that things “always fall off the tables,” he says.) Eyone Williams, whose novel Lorton Legends was a favorite among Lorton residents, is a co-producer, as is the author and former DC “Teflon suspect” Sean Branch.
Right now, there’s no way to stream the movie – Mowatt says he’s still looking for the right platform to work with. He has held several shows, all of which are sold out. Younger people with family connections to Lorton have been particularly interested, he says: “They actually came and watched the movie so they could have a look at what their parents were going through,” he says.
The documentary also shares some of the prison’s less sinister and often surprising history, such as its boxing program and concerts there by Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Chuck Brown. Mowatt has acquired footage of a touring theater program organized by inmates in the ’70s, which will be part of the documentary’s next edition. The stories from Lorton “could go on forever because you had eight prisons,” he says. “There are hundreds of stories in each one.”
Lorton: Prison of Terror shows Sunday, April 3 at. 14 at Alamo Drafthouse, 630 Rhode Island Avenue, Northeast. A Q&A follows the screening. Tickets cost $ 28.