Fairfax Presbyterian Church’s “A Hike Through the Criminal Justice System”
Event Location: National Capital Presbytery
A group of 28 youths and adults from three Presbyterian Church USA congregations took “A Hike Through the Criminal Justice System” on Saturday, April 29, 2023. The group was interracial and included participants from Faith Presbyterian Church (Washington, DC), Fairfax Presbyterian Church (Fairfax, Virginia) and First Presbyterian Church of Dale City (Dale City, Virginia). Walking the grounds of the old Lorton Reformatory, the group learned about race and gender in the criminal justice system, and reflected on the words of Jesus, “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).
Led by Shani McIlwain, the African American female moderator of National Capital Presbytery, the group started its hike at the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial in the Occoquan Regional Park. There, participants learned about the suffragists who engaged in decades of protests, demanding that women be given the right to vote. This movement culminated in 1917’s “Night of Terror,” in which women were jailed and beaten in the Workhouse of the Lorton Reformatory. Their suffering was a turning point in the movement, and within several years women were given the vote.
The group hiked up the hill to the Workhouse, where the focus shifted to the topic of race and incarceration. Since Lorton was the prison for Washington, DC, for almost a century, a large number of inmates were African American. The work of inmates was largely brick-making and agricultural labor, and the prison had a plantation environment that evoked the days of slavery. Participants were able to visit a cellblock to see the austere conditions in which inmates were held, and also saw some of the religious art that was produced by inmates.
Some responses from participants:
“I’m seeing something different about… ummm… how the prison people lived.”
“The prisoners worked for the people.”
“The big cross statue was my favorite.”
“I enjoyed looking at the cage rooms.” [referring to the cellblock]
Shani McIlwain led excellent discussions of how dehumanizing the prison experience was, and how we can do a better job of engaging with people in the criminal justice system. Many felt that we have an opportunity to see Jesus in the faces of those who are imprisoned today.
The hike concluded with informal conversations as the group walked down a path that was once a rail line for the prison railroad that transported the bricks made by inmates. Some of the adults on the hike expressed interest in repeating the experience for other church groups.