Little Bits of History

Women Only

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 30, 2015
Alderson Prison*

Alderson Prison*

April 30, 1927: Alderson Prison opens. Officially called the Federal Prison Camp, Alderson or FPC Alderson, the US federal prison in located in West Virginia and was the first federal prison for women. It is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons which is a division of the United States Department of Justice. It is located in two different counties near the town of Alderson. A portion lies in unincorporated Monroe County and the other part, which includes the dormitories, is in unincorporated Summers County. The nearest town and the one for which it is named is Alderson but there are four more nearby town – Hinton, Lewisburg, Ronceverte, and White Sulphur Springs.

In the 1920s there was a shortage of federal prison space for female inmates and they were often given alternative punishments or placed in all-male facilities. When the latter happened, the girls or women were often sexually exploited by both the inmates and the staff. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the Assistant US Attorney General, advocated for a separate space in which to incarcerate female prisoners. Alderson was the first such prison and opened during a period of prison reform in which rehabilitation for female prisoners became a goal. The first warden, Mary B. Harris, was specifically chosen by Willebrandt. There were 174 women sent to the facility between this date and its formal opening on November 14, 1928.

The 159-acre prison was designed like boarding schools and offered education and had no armed guards when first opened. The grounds were also not fenced. The facility was mainly work-related with fourteen cottages built in a horseshoe pattern on two-tiered slopes. The minor offenders, usually drug and alcohol related during Prohibition, were partitioned by race with each cottage having room for about thirty women. Each building also had its own kitchen. Today, there is fencing although it is not topped with barbed wire. Even now, incarcerated women are given a work schedule although there are holidays given with just the powerhouse and the kitchen remaining open on those days. Vocational growth remains a priority.

Today, there are 1,070 inmates there. Most are in for non-violent or white-collar crimes. Today, prisoners sleep in bunk beds in two large dormitories with each holding slightly more than 500. The prison was nicknamed Camp Cupcake while Martha Stewart was there. There have been some noted violent offenders such as Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme both of whom made assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford. There have been a few spies sent there as well a couple corrupt politicians, Meg Scott Phipps and Monica Conyers, each of whom served three years for their crimes. Esther Reed and Diane Hathaway were both sent there after some financial trouble and Billie Holiday, the jazz singer legend, spent time there on a narcotics charge.

It’s a fairly unique position; to have been in charge of prison funding and then to have been an inmate. I wish I’d been more generous. – Jonathan Aitken

Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment. – Nelson Mandela

Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums who find prison so soul-destroying. – Evelyn Waugh

Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul. – Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Also on this day: Oh, Hail – In 1888, the deadliest hailstorm in history strikes in India.
Louisiana Purchase – in 1803, President Jefferson bought some land from France.
Father of Our Country – In 1789, George Washington took the Oath of Office and became the first President of the United States.
Super – In 1006, a supernova was observed.
Bilious Pills – In 1796, a patent was granted for a pill.

* “Alderson Federal Prison” by Aaron Bauer – Flickr: Alderson Federal Prison. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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