There is a moment in the popular Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black” when all the women crowd into the television room and wait to see where Judy King — a domestic mogul who not by accident resembles Martha Stewart — is going to be imprisoned.
“Do you have any details on Judy King’s placement, sir,” a reporter can be heard asking on the television. “We’d like to know, sir.”
“Judy King will serve her time at the Alderson correctional facility,” a man replies on the screen.
In that moment, the fictional setting of Litchfield, the prison on the show, gives a not-so-subtle nod to a real women’s prison — and not just any one. The Alderson Federal Prison Camp has a rich history filled with powerful women who both pushed for the walls to be built there and served time within them.
On Friday, viewers will be back inside the barbed-wire fences of Litchfield as a new season of the show premieres. But to understand why correctional facilities exist for women and what women have experienced in them over the decades, one just has to look at Alderson.
Located in West Virginia, about a five-hour drive from Washington, it was the first federal prison for women in the country and has housed some unforgettable inmates: jazz legend Billie Holiday, Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón, World War II propagandist Tokyo Rose, Charles Manson devotee Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, and, yes, Martha Stewart.
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Yoga Jones, one of the characters on “Orange Is the New Black,” rhapsodized about the real-life penitentiary in one episode. “I spent five months at Alderson,” she said. “It was awesome … They had a craft shop and a volleyball team. I had Martha Stewart’s old bunk.”
In 1923, five years before the facility would open, The Washington Post described the push for it by nearly two dozen national women’s organizations and Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the first woman to hold that position. Their plans called for a federal facility for women that would be run by women.
“It is interesting to know that before a woman was appointed Assistant Attorney General at Washington, the question of the Federal woman criminal was never given any special thought,” the article, written by a female journalist, reads. “Such a thing as a separate prison for female offenders never entered the head of a man.”
Women at that time, instead, were held in local jails and state prisons that also housed men. The arrangement, the article said, ignored essential differences.
“A woman convict can no more be disciplined by hard prison labor or road-building than an old offender of the opposite sex can be tamed with basket weaving or embroidery,” it reads. “The male and female criminal are different types, requiring different treatment if the same result — reform — is to be had. Both need the sort of constructive work that will turn them out useful citizens instead of a menace. It is twice as hard for a woman committing an offense against society to ‘come back’ and double effort should be made to help her.”
The West Virginia property was appealing for its location: It was close to Washington but remote enough that escaping the property would be difficult. Fromme, who was serving time for the attempted assassination of President Gerald R. Ford, once fled. She was captured a day and a half later, walking along a road two miles south of the facility.
When the prison accepted its first three residents in 1927 and then officially opened in 1928, it offered a campus of cottages. There were no walls or armed guards. The main workshops were sewing and knitting. (Now, among its many self-improvement groups are Narcotics Anonymous and yoga).
Eleanor Roosevelt toured the campus on May 28, 1934, and praised it.
“I think it’s a very wonderful institution — it is so because you don’t feel it is one of this nature,” she was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
While there, she mingled with the inmates, walked through the farm lands, which were tilled by the women, and ate the same lunch as the prisoners. She was given a bouquet of flowers by Girl Scouts who had marched from the town to the prison.
The first lady would not be the last famous person to walk the grounds — although, unlike her, the others didn’t have the liberty to leave the same day.
In 1947, Holiday was convicted of possession of narcotics and served one year at Alderson, where she endured a difficult detox. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday,’ ” she later wrote of her case, “and that’s just the way it felt.” She reportedly didn’t sing a note while in prison.
In 1949, Iva Toguri D’Aquino, the Japanese American known as Tokyo Rose, ended up at Alderson after she was convicted of treason for broadcasting propaganda from Japan to U.S. servicemen in World War II. She denied any wrongdoing but served six years. In 1977, she was granted a presidential pardon from Ford.
Lebrón, who led three other Puerto Rican nationalists in an attack on the U.S. House of Representatives that left five congressmen wounded, served 25 years in the prison. She was originally sentenced to serve 56 years but received a presidential pardon from Jimmy Carter in 1979.
While at Alderson, Lebrón had religious visions that she wrote down on toilet paper, and then in notebooks that would be turned into volumes of poetry. In a Washington Post profile of her, she described seeing silk flowers speak to her, the faces of presidents lift off money, and her jail cell and body burst into flames. She referred to it as “her period of light.”
When Martha Stewart arrived at the facility as prisoner No. 55170-054, the campus was immediately nicknamed “Camp Cupcake.” She called the place “Yale” and in an interview with David Letterman said she didn’t remember her first day. “I asked my fellow inmates a couple months later, I said, ‘How did I behave that first day?’ because everyone was watching me,” she said. “They said I was walking around in a daze.”
Of the lessons she learned there, she said: “The rehabilitation really is nonexistent for the most part.”
Similar to Judy King, who ends up going to Litchfield after all, Stewart was a media magnet at Alderson. One of the show’s episodes features a drone taking a picture of King in the yard that ends up on the front of a tabloid. When Stewart was at Alderson, the local town saw a financial boon because of the media’s presence, with one landowner charging satellite trucks $750 to park on his property near the prison gates.
Stewart’s and King’s experiences within the walls, however, likely veered. King is presented as a highly sexual character who keeps a husband and a lover, and orchestrates a threesome with a guard and her roommate while behind bars.
The Alderson inmate handbook says this about physical contact: “Inmates are restricted from hand-holding, embracing, kissing, the placement of arms around shoulders or waist, or other forms of physical contact. Occasionally a brief embrace of friendship may be appropriate, such as in case of a farewell to an inmate being released. Should this embrace be considered prolonged or involve behavior determined to be of sexual nature, the inmates will be considered in violation and subject to disciplinary action.”
(Even so, a 1972 front-page Washington Post story about Alderson ran under the headline “Female Homosexuality Prevalent.”)
Jennifer Myers, who served time in Alderson for drug trafficking, wrote in Salon in 2014 about how she saw parallels between her experience there and the world created in “Orange Is the New Black”:
I recognize the characters from Alderson. After working with women going into prison, I believe most prison camps have a mentally unstable but enduring Crazy Eyes, an inmate like Big Boo who dresses like a man, a lord of the kitchen like Red, a Yoga Jones, an activist nun like Sister Jane, and an ex-meth addict like Pennsatucky … and every woman has a story, which “Orange” so masterfully tells. “Orange” gets the racial tension and the guards’ characters just right. The truth is, no matter what our color or our station, we were all imprisoned together.
Considering that the only time we had privacy was when we showered or used the toilet, I think we all got along quite well. Sure, at Alderson, a woman beat another woman’s face with a padlock in her sock, and a jealous lover attacked the woman’s other girlfriend in the dining hall. Still, a woman I know who was incarcerated for 13 years said something wise. “Women would rather hug each other than shank each other.” I had to laugh at that. It’s so true.
Former Alderson inmate Clare Hanrahan, who served a six-month sentence in 2001 for civil disobedience, said her experience was far from the one originally envisioned by the women who fought for the prison to open.
“The founding mothers wanted a separate women’s reformatory and a homelike setting,” Hanrahan, 68, said. “These were women who cared. And the situation I experienced there, and I think you’d find it to be even harsher now, was male dominated, punitive. I would imagine it is like being in an abusive relationship where they never had to hit you. The threat was always there.”
The prison’s first superintendent, Mary Belle Harris, had written that she wished for all the positions to be filled by women, “for reasons too obvious to require explanation.” But Hanrahan said male guards, at will, patted down inmates and pulled the covers off them as they slept.
Hanrahan, who has written about her experience, said there were wrenching moments of seeing children peeled from their mothers after visits. And women so old they had to be helped up the stairs. But the hardest thing for her, she said, “was cooperating with my own imprisonment.”
“There were no bars,” she said. “When I would have visitors, and I would have frequent visitors, I had to pass the road that would lead me out to freedom, and my feet became like lead.”
Hanrahan said she hasn’t watched “Orange Is the New Black.”
“I just haven’t felt like going back,” she said. “It’s hard when you get out. You want to put it behind you.”
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