Guest Author - Vance Rowe
The Federal Industrial Institution for Women was opened in the southwest section of West Virginia in Alderson on April 30, 1927. It was a prison for women that were serving federal sentences for longer than a year. It was built on about 105 acres of rolling hills at a cost of $1,734,400 and its first warden was a woman named Dr. Mary B. Harris. This was the very first federal prison built that was strictly for women and it’s purpose focused on reforming women instead of punishing them. Inside they learned skills such as farming, cooking and canning among other occupations so that they would be ready for e-entry into society as a productive component instead of a burden.
It is now called Federal Prison Camp, Alderson or FPC Alderson and it has no metal fences or barbed wire around it. It houses about 1050 inmates and the women stay in dormitories or “cottages.” Each cottage has its own kitchen as well and are named after famous social reformers such as Jane Addams Hull. All of the female inmates had to adhere to strict work schedules and their free time was spent playing sports like tennis and volleyball. It was first discussed in 1924 to be built and was encouraged by then former First Lady Florence Harding and future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt along with Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the Assistant U.S. Attorney General.
The prison has housed its share of celebrity inmates such as Billie Holiday for a narcotics related and Squeaky Fromme, the woman who pointed a gun at now former President Gerald R. Ford and Sara Jane Moore, the woman who attempted to assassinate President Ford a couple of weeks after the incident with Squeaky Fromme. Sara Moore escaped from the prison but was soon recaptured a few hours later and was sent to a more secure prison in California. The prison has also housed women associated with the Ma Barker gang, the Clyde Barrows gang and Iva Toguri D'Aquino, the woman who was thought to be WWII radio propagandist Tokyo Rose. Kathryn Kelly, wife of the notorious Machine Gun Kelly spent most of her life sentence there as well along with her mother.
A judge once called it a “fashionable boarding school”, the media has called it “Camp Cupcake” and Martha Stewart, the prison’s most recent celebrity prisoner even gave it the nickname “Yale.” Though it has had many nicknames, the prison was certainly progressive for its time.