Stewart’s Alderson Prison: “We Must See Flesh”


When she entered the Alderson, W. Va., Federal Prison Camp today, Martha Stewart stepped into a piece of feminist history, Federal Prison Camp, says the Christian Science Monitor. Alderson was the nation’s first federal women’s prison. It opened as part of a reform movement in the 1920s as a place where “fallen” women could reclaim dignity and learn skills. It remains one of the best prisons for women, offering vocational training and GED classes. Critics say it is overcrowded, understaffed, and short on funds for some programs. It now follows a punitive rather than a rehabilitative model, including some intimidation, humiliation, and sexual harassment. Some advocates hope Stewart’s stay for fraud will also turn her into an avid prison activist. Says Susan Galbraith, founder of Our Place, a prison advocacy center, “It’s one of the most characteristic ways that women do time. They ask: ‘How can I turn this horrendous experience into something positive for women who are going to follow me?’ ”

Alderson has never had walls or razor wire. It was built as a series of cottages. Each one had a library, kitchen, and dining room, and each inmate had her own, albeit very small, room. The guards were all women, and they lived in the cottages with the inmates, who sewed, cooked, and were educated under their supervisor’s care. “It was women reaching out and helping other women to reclaim their self-respect and dignity,” says Clare Hanrahan, an antiwar activist who served six months at Alderson on a trespassing charge. She says there is no privacy, and male guards routinely walk in on women in the bathroom and pull bedcovers off at night to verify head counts. “They say, ‘We must see flesh, ladies!’ ” says Hanrahan. “It’s humiliating.”


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