When the Federal Correctional Institution for Women opened here in the late 1920s, many of the first inmates were poor whites from small town and rural America, where alcohol was brewed in violation of the Volstead Act, or artsy urbanites who ignored the Harrison Narcotics Act long before drugs became a national problem.

Since then, inmates at the nation's only federal prison for women have been a pretty accurate reflection of changes in American society and the criminal activities of successive generations.

The '40s and the '50s brought war criminals and profiteers; the '60s cultists, war protesters and revolutionaries; the '70s environmental activists, hijackers, illegal aliens, and the first person convicted of attempted assassination of a president, and the '80s international drug smugglers.

Today, foreigners serving sentences for drug smuggling constitute nearly one-fifth of the prisoners. Most of the foreigners are South Americans convicted as "mules," carriers of drugs for sophisticated international smuggling operations. And a new wave is now coming from Nigeria, with about 20 residents of the country having been sentenced here in the last six months.

In addition to the federal prisoners, about 100 women sentenced for crimes by courts in the District of Columbia are brought to this remote village of 1,300, 270 miles and six hours by car from Washington. The prisoners -- along with 30 inmates from West Virginia -- are kept here under a contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons.

"It's a long way from home," said Cassandra Pitts, 32, a District resident who was convicted of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

The isolation, however, serves a purpose. Escapes are infrequent, according to prison officials, and when they do occur -- as in a recent break-out involving three women who were captured within 96 hours -- the inmates usually are caught.

Alderson, as it is known in the federal correctional system, was proposed in 1925 by the country's first female assistant attorney general, Mabel Walker Willebrandt. And when it opened three years later, it was headed by the nation's first female warden, Mary B. Harris. The present warden, Gwynne E. Sizer, is the first black woman to hold such a position in the federal prison system.

David Helman, executive assistant to Sizer, said Alderson was built with the special needs and problems of women inmates in mind. Although its 96 acres are surrounded by an eight-foot-high barbed wire fence, there are no guard towers or armed officers. (Weapons are locked in an armory and taken out only in emergencies.)

Few of the women wile away their time in cells -- one day last week the count in Davis Hall, the only locked building, was 10. Nearly all work, most of them in a sewing factory that supplies cloth goods for federal agencies.

The inmates wear their own clothing and live in 18 cottages, many in private rooms to which they (and the guards) have keys. The buildings have been given names, selected by the inmates, that reflect the population: Rio Vista, Villa Vista and DeLonta, and Mary McLeod Bethune, Barbara Jordan, Althea Gibson. (Residents of the three cottages set aside for drug offenders chose West Virginia wildflowers, but like all inmate decisions, they were subject to approval of the warden and her staff, which ordered that one proposed name, Cannibis, be changed to Tiger Lily.)

In the half century since Alderson opened, it has had its share of the famous and infamous: blues singer Billie Holiday, a drug addict; enemy propagandists Tokyo Rose, a Los Angeles-born Japanese, and Axis Sally, a native of Portland, Maine, convicted as war criminals after World War II.

Two present inmates were members of the Manson "family" cult in California, although they were not sent here for crimes associated with the Sharon Tate murder. Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme, 36, was convicted of the attempted assassination of President Ford in 1975. She works as a landscaper, tending flower beds, raking leaves, picking up trash. Sandra Good, 40, convicted nine years ago for conspiring to mail death-threat letters to business and government leaders, has a clerical job in the prison chapel.

Sara Jane Moore, who also attempted to kill Ford, spent time here before being transferred to a prison in California, one of four in the federal system that has both male and female inmates.

During her incarceration here in the late '40s, Holiday was assigned to the garment factory, a fact that is responsible for the lore among present-day workers in the factory that they are working on Billie Holiday's sewing machine. Helman says the real machine was replaced long ago by more modern equipment, but the legend is an indication of the singer's appeal to the prison's inmates, 55 percent of whom are black.

The scene in the garment factory resembles a modern-day "Carmen." Rock 'n' roll blaring from a radio accompanies the whirring of a hundred sewing machines, whose operators turn out green mail bags for the postal service, white sheets for the Veterans Administration and cloth material for other federal agencies. It is cheap labor -- the hourly rate runs from 44 cents to $1.30 with bonuses -- but Helman says that for some of the Hispanic seamstresses, the pay is higher than the per capita income in their native lands.

Many of the D.C. prisoners assigned to the garment factory say they like the work, but they complain that it does not prepare them for work outside the prison because there are no such jobs in the city. So the newly modernized print shop is a major attraction for them.

Edwina Sinclair, who has spent more than 10 years here at various times, said Alderson is much better than the D.C. Jail, where "you learn nothing." She is one of 40 prisoners who work in a modern print shop that produces silk-screen posters (a current job is 400,000 Smokey the Bear bumper stickers) and military emblems, including the sardonic "Live Free or Die" motto of the New Hampshire National Guard, which is taped on the wall.

"They tell me that almost every office in Washington has a little print shop," said Sinclair, who is eligible for parole next January.

The contrast between the garment and print shops and the prison greenhouse is typified by the music. A small radio in the glass-enclosed building is playing classical music. The lone prisoner-worker is busy classifying the plants, she says, for "whoever follows me."

Her taste in music is just one of the ways in which Elizabeth McAlister differs from most of her fellow prisoners. McAlister, 44, a former nun who is married to ex-priest Philip Berrigan, is serving a three-year sentence for a "Plowshares" disarmament action last summer at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y. She says she and six others, including three women also imprisoned at Alderson, "had a good time painting graffiti and hammering holes in a B-52 bomber" to protest deployment of Cruise missiles from the base.

Where she differs most from the other inmates is her attitude about the future. While even the most hapless drug addict here swears "never again," when appearing before the parole board, McAlister, in her hearing a couple of weeks ago, said in answer to whether she would commit her crime again: "My hope is that I would do it again, but one cannot guarantee fidelity."