The Abandoned ‘Shawshank Redemption’ Prison and Others Are Eerily Beautiful as They Exist Today

Chilling photos of the abandoned Shawshank Redemption Prison and other 19th-century dungeons give a rare glimpse into a darker part of human history.

1. Lorton Reformatory

Lorton Reformatory
Lorton Reformatory. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

The District of Columbia’s Lorton Reformatory is a maximum-security prison built in 1920 by lower to mid-level prisoners as part of an experimental program aimed at deterring individuals from breaking the law. The theory was that if would-be-criminals knew their sentence could include hard work outside in the elements, they would think twice before engaging in petty crimes. The prison was shut down in 2001, at which time it was purchased by Fairfax County. It remains standing today, but redevelopment plans have been proposed at various points since its shutdown. For the time-being, it stands, despite its deteriorating state.

Lorton Reformatory
An empty hall of dust and peeling paint. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

Built in response to inhumane conditions at the District of Columbia’s jail in Washington, the Lorton Reformatory was part of a new-wave in prison architecture aimed at providing inmates a decent stay. Built as a workhouse reformatory, the primary goal of the Lorton Reformatory was to reform inmates into contributing members of society. Upon the completion of the prison, inmates worked various jobs on site, including metalwork, farming, construction, and even making clothing.

Lorton Reformatory
Files, documents, and books lie strewn about. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

As Cindy explored this prison, she walked into more than one invisible wall of black mold stench. She noted that some of the notoriously wetter interior areas of the prison were so moldy that she found herself either holding her breath or skipping the area entirely. In one case, as she entered the kitchen, the thickness of black mold in the air was so pungent that she was immediately overcome with a feeling of sickness literally entering her body. She still managed to get the shot, however, which can be seen below.

Lorton Reformatory
What is left of the kitchen. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

Instead of the traditional cell blocks utilized in other prisons built in the early 1900’s, cells in this prison were built with more of a dormitory style in mind. This design contributed to a better team-based atmosphere necessary for the prison’s workhouse nature.

Lorton Reformatory
The Lorton laundry room. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

Disintegrating decals and posters adorn the cell walls even to this day (not pictured). Images of the Washington Redskins logo, female pop stars, Jesus Christ, and even old Mercedes Benz advertisements kept inmates’ dreams alive in a place where many held onto little hope of release.

Lorton Reformatory
A hall of empty prison cells where inmates once resided. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

In addition to the daily labor required by most prisoners at the facility, those wanting to push things even further were given access to weight machines and workout equipment. At least one such machine remains incarcerated at this abandoned facility, as seen below.

Lorton Reformatory
Prisoners here had access to weight machines. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

During the Cold War, an underground portion of Lorton Reformatory was used as a government communications bunker should the United States find itself at war with the former Soviet Union.

Lorton Reformatory
A caution sign adorns a door leading to a utility room. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

For reasons unknown, the designers of Lorton Reformatory utilized unconventional colored paint in their utility rooms. This doesn’t exactly give off the “dungeon vibe” most older prisons are known for, but certainly leaves a memorable impression upon its guests.

Lorton Reformatory
Lorton Reformatory utility pipes are non-traditionally colorful. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

Despite being built in the early 1900s, Lorton Reformatory’s construction has held up quite well. In fact, as part of the redevelopment plan currently being proposed, the once-prison will actually be converted to apartments, offices, and shops. As of the date these photos were taken, this process has not begun, however, and the nauseating smell of mold is still is rampant within the compound. How the state plans to convince people to come here by their own choice still remains to be seen.

Lorton Reformatory
One smiling resident remains to this day. (Photo Copyright © 2013 Cindy Vasko)

Throughout history, society’s ever-looming question of “what do we do with criminals” has been answered with countless differing schools of thought. Aside from what is portrayed in books and movies, the stories of loneliness and despair from 19th and 20th-century prisons are difficult to relate to in today’s world of more civilized penitentiaries. Cindy’s work allows us to experience the shadows of history like never before. For her, visiting these prisons as a photographer has given her a new perspective on life. She told PopMalt that she emerges after each shoot feeling more blessed to have never suffered the harshness of these real-life dungeons.

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Cindy’s award-winning work has aptly captured an unusually beautiful, yet mysterious part of history. In fact, when contrasted with actually being there in person, she feels the photographs themselves better capture the aura and mood of these abandoned locations. At times, being on site at such a shoot is dangerous, rancid, and generally uncomfortable. Photos allow the viewer to step out of reality and into the experience of being there in a surreal way. With photographs, viewers can remain lost in these frozen moments as long as they wish without being constantly jolted back to reality by other tourists, sounds, smells, and yellow caution tape — much like watching a movie is typically more immersive than being on set as it’s being filmed. We as humans, after all, don’t want to see the photographer or the cameras; we want to pretend these things don’t exist. In the case of these prisons, for instance, we want to be fooled into believing what we are seeing is genuine. We want to experience the first-hand awe of being the first person to peer into a lost time capsule; thanks to photographers like Cindy, we can.

Did you enjoy these photos? Make sure to check out Cindy Vasko’s official website for more of her work. You can also find her on flikr. All images in this article are Copyright © Cindy Vasko 2013-2015 and are used with permission.

Written by Andrew Fischer

Andrew Fischer is the Head Writer and Editor-in-Chief of PopMalt. He is an avid follower of all things pop and Internet culture, and works as Creative Director at NURV, a boutique creative multimedia and digital marketing company. He is also the founder of The Jericho Joe.