When lifestyle doyenne Martha Stewart arrives at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp, the multimillionaire businesswoman won't just be joining other storied names such as Billie Holiday, "Tokyo Rose," and Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme who have done time at the campuslike collection of cottages in the West Virginia mountains.
She will also be stepping into a piece of feminist history. Alderson was the nation's first federal women's prison. It opened as part of a reform movement in the 1920s as a place where "fallen" women could reclaim dignity as well as learn skills.
Prison-reform advocates note that it remains one of the best prisons for women today, offering vocational training and GED classes. But they contend it is also overcrowded, understaffed, and short on funds for some programs. In addition, it now follows a punitive rather than a rehabilitative model, and critics contend there's intimidation, humiliation, and sexual harassment. In short, at least to today's reformers, it's a symbol of all that's wrong with how the criminal justice system deals with women.
And just as the creation of Alderson was sparked by suffragettes appalled by inhumane conditions, some advocates are hoping Ms. Stewart's stay for fraud will also turn her into an avid prison activist.
There is a long precedent for such activism, from Jean Harris, who did time for killing the author of the Scarsdale Diet, to Susan McDougal, who was incarcerated for refusing to testify before independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
"They both turned that situation into one where they could shed light on the problems encountered in women's prisons, and certainly Martha has an opportunity to do that as well," says Susan Galbraith, founder of Our Place, a nonprofit prison advocacy center in Washington. "It's one of the most characteristic ways that women do time. They ask: 'How can I turn this horrendous experience into something positive for women who are going to follow me?' "