By JESSICA FARRISH
ALDERSON, W.Va. — West Virginia Congressman Evan Jenkins spoke to a crowd of around 500 who gathered Thursday morning at the Federal Prison Camp (FPC) in Alderson to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the women’s prison, which famously housed mogul Martha Stewart in 2004.
Opened April 30, 1927, the prison camp is operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons and is the largest employer in this town of about 1,180.
“The warden has been here for a year, and who knows how many more years you will be here?” the congressman told the retired wardens, guards and community members who attended the ceremony. “I’ve had the opportunity to serve in the United States Congress just a little over two years … but the bottom line is, we have this moment in time to try to make an impact and make a difference.”
Jenkins’ Washington office quarters was once headed by West Virginia Congressman Wells Goodykoontz, who was in office when Alderson opened, Jenkins noted.
Keynote speaker Margaret Hambrick, who retired from the Bureau of Prisons and serves as the current president of the Greenbrier Historical Society and in additional volunteer positions, summarized the history of women’s incarceration in the nation and at Alderson, noting that Alderson pre-dates the Bureau of Prisons.
In 1917, it was a federal crime for a woman to pass a sexually transmitted disease to troops. Along with women imprisoned for that “crime against the war effort,” a number of women had been convicted and imprisoned under the Prohibition Act and drug laws.
Meanwhile, women of means were demanding voting rights.
“Women became much more politically active in the United States as they sought the right to vote,” she said. “Many were imprisoned.”
A number of the imprisoned suffragettes came from prominent American families. They persuaded influential men to take note of the “deplorable” conditions faced by women prisoners at the time.
Women’s voting rights were gained in 1920, and in 1921, President Warren Harding appointed Mabel Walker Willebrandt as assistant attorney general.
Willebrandt established the first federal prison for women.
Later, Alderson was established as a prison “for women, run by women.”
“There were no similar facilities,” Hambrick reported.
Alderson was racially integrated by 1956, she added, but a former prisoner reported discrimination against women of color during job assignments in the years following.
“The first and only real riot took place here in 1971,” Hambrick added. “It wasn’t about Alderson or the conditions here.”
She said Alderson prisoners rioted in sympathy with prisoners at Attica in New York, who took over that prison.
Hambrick said Alderson had no specialists or teams prepared to handle a riot, so outsiders were brought in to help.
Hambrick earned laughter and nods from retired Alderson staff as she recalled that one of the visiting officers had “mumps” but came to help anyway, passing the illness to many at Alderson during the riot.
Wilson said the modern Alderson model focuses efforts on re-entry of prisoners into the general population and offers inmates opportunities for education, gender-specific relationship and personal fitness courses and computerized “visits” with loved ones via SKYPE.
He said the prison is relying on increased automation and workers who are more highly-trained.
Other recent inmates of note include Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore who both were convicted of attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
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