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Alderson: Reclaiming the Vision

By Clare Hanrahan

Seventy-five years ago, the first federal prison for women opened in Alderson, West Virginia, as the Federal Industrial Institution for Women. The founding vision was for a community of women working together under the guidance of other women.

In the early 1920s a prison reform movement grew out of concerns of imprisoned activists in the Womens Suffrage movement who experienced harsh prison conditions for acts of civil disobedience. These women returned to speak of the indignities and abuse they endured when held as captives in mens prisons.

Alderson prison was the culmination of the vision and work of women in twenty-one national organizations. The American Association of University Women, the National Federation of Business and Professional Womens Clubs, the American Federation of Teachers, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the League of Women Voters, the Republican and Democratic National Committees, and the national Womens Christian Temperance Union were among them. These prison reformers sought to protect women inmates from the exploitation of male inmates and staff and to provide a homelike communal setting with provisions for nurseries and childcare to women sentenced to prison. Aldersons campus-like prison included residential cottages named after social reformers, such as Elizabeth Frye, Jane Addams and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Dr. Mary B. Harris, the prisons first superintendent, held a doctorate in Sanskrit from the University of Chicago. She believed that women prisoners, when treated with dignity and provided with educational opportunities, could "build within themselves a well of self-respect" and learn the skills that would enable them to earn their own living without dependence on a man or the community.

But this vision for a place of education and rehabilitation for prisoners was not long lasting. Alderson Federal Prison came under the authority of the US Bureau of Prisons in 1930 during a time of rapid increase in federal prisoners due to Prohibition laws, that eras failed war on drugs.

By the end of World War II, a military model of prison administration had taken hold. Soon male wardens, correctional officers, and administrative employees predominated. Today, over seventy percent of correctional officers in womens prisons are men. Over the years, a power and control model has replaced the womens sphere envisioned by Aldersons founders.

At first sight, even today, Alderson Federal Prison Camp resembles a college campus. There are no bars, no razor wire fences, and no armed guards. But this minimum-security prison now operates with much of the destructive dynamic present in abusive family relationships self-esteem is undermined with insidious intent, and control is maintained through isolation and the threat of more severe reprisal for resistance or defiance. Stepping outside the virtual walls at Alderson can result in a fine up to $5,000 or Imprisonment up to five (5) years. Escape is a felony offense.

Last year I was one among Aldersons nearly 1,000 captive women, just one more number in a criminal justice system that presently incarcerates close to two million. I slept in the top bunk of cinderblock cube 042 a nine by twelve foot stall in a massive and austere concrete building holding 500 women. This warehouse-like barracks, and a second one now under construction, will replace many of the vintage 1927 campus-style cottages, demolished to make room for a growing population of women prisoners, the fastest-growing and least violent segment of the prison population nationwide.

The Bureau of Prisons operates with a military style chain of command, unlike the cooperative clubs designed for self-governance that were part of Aldersons early vision. Many of the correctional officers and administrative personnel at Alderson and throughout the federal Bureau of Prisons are former military. They enforce the petty and demeaning rules, patrol the corridors, guard women while they sleep, and walk in and out of the sleeping quarters, shower and toilet rooms of captive women at will.

At Alderson women are subjected to head counts six times daily, and during midnight and early morning bed checks, male officers often pull back the sheets of sleeping women with the excuse, We must see flesh, ladies, to verify the head count.

Women are stripped of all personal items on arrival and issued ill-fitting mens military-khaki shirts and jackets as work uniforms and oversized white cotton T-shirts as sleeping gowns, and in the winter mens thermal underwear. Medical care at Alderson and throughout the Federal Bureau of Prisons is minimal, often delayed, seldom results in restoration of health, and sometimes is the cause of further medical problems.

Drug and property related nonviolent crimes are responsible for the majority of convictions. Most, as many as eighty percent at Alderson, and the majority of all women felons, are caught in the wide net called conspiracy. Prisoners of the domestic war on drugs, they are held for five, ten, even twenty years on mandatory minimum sentences at a cost of at least $22,000 per person, per year. Billie Holiday, a heroin addict and Alderson inmate in 1947, wrote in her book, Lady Sings the Blues: People on drugs are sick people. So now we end up with the government chasing sick people like they were criminals...the jails are full and the problem is getting worse every day. But access to the drug treatment program at Alderson is limited and far more women apply than can ever be served.

Alderson is a work camp. The labor of captive women is critical to the operation of the prison. Our innocence or guilt was irrelevant to our keepers. We were a profitable commodity, especially to UNICOR, the prison industry, where hundreds of women sew army jackets for a pittance as little as 27 cents an hour in a locked and loud factory, hunched over the machines day after day.

Alderson has strayed far from its founding vision, expressed best by its first superintendent, Mary Belle Harris. She believed that control through care and compassion, rather than terror was most efficacious, and she helped create an environment of cooperation emphasizing self-governing principles to provide every inmate an equal chance to develop as far as her endowment permits and become a law-abiding and self-supporting member of her group.

The famous labor organizer and socialist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn charged under the Smith Act for expressing dangerous ideas, and imprisoned at Alderson from 1955 to 1957, in her book The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner, called on the founding organizations to take another look at Alderson.

It would be well, she wrote, if these same organizations would check on the discrepancies between the original plans and the fine work of Dr. Harris as compared to the conditions at present. Practically all of her methods and ideas have been discarded.

I will add my voice to the challenge. Over the years many women of courage, commitment and integrity, the famous and the obscure, have contributed to Alderson and its rich history, both as keeper and kept. We must not forget the women of Alderson. Before the Bureau of Prisons succeeds in destroying what remains of the legacy of Aldersons founding visionaries, women must reclaim Alderson as a place where our imprisoned sisters can find healing, education, treatment and support. Only in this way will they be enabled to claim independence and equal rights upon release, as Aldersons founding mothers intended.


Clare Hanrahan is an Asheville, NC writer and antiwar activist. She spent six months at Alderson prison as a consequence of peaceful protest against the US Army School of Americas. Her first book, Jailed for Justice: A Woman's Guide to Federal Prison Camp, is available from the author.

Clare's newest book is Conscience & Consequence: A Prison Memoir, a highly personal account of her six-month incarceration inside Alderson prison, the oldest and largest US Federal prison for women. The book exposes some of the devastating abuses of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Clare can be reached at: www.celticwordcraft.com

This article first appeared in the February/March, 2003 edition of Western North Carolina Woman, volume 2, issue 1

©2003 Clare Hanrahan
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