In 1970, women made up only 3 percent of the prison population nationwide. More than half the states didn't even have separate facilities, according to Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist at the University of Hawaii.
Little changed until the 1980s, when a combination of factors created a women's prison surge. Some experts point to the deterioration of the family and to women's increased economic instability. But most contend the biggest factor was get-tough mandatory-minimum drug laws. They were intended to net drug kingpins but instead snared millions of low-level offenders, including many women. The result: The number of women in prison skyrocketed from about 12,000 in 1980 to more than 100,000 in 2003.
To cope, state and federal officials started building prisons fast. But critics say that instead of recognizing the unique needs of women and developing the kind of rehabilitative model that Alderson was founded upon, they simply replicated men's prisons. "Women's institutions are literally men's institutions, only we pull out the urinals," says Professor Chesney-Lind. "The irony between that historic era and the current mode of women's incarceration couldn't be starker."
Alderson has never had any walls or razor wire. It was built as a series of cottages. Each one had a library, kitchen, and dining room, and each inmate had her own, albeit very small, room. The guards were all women, and they lived in the cottages with the inmates, who sewed, cooked, and were educated under their supervisor's care.
"It was women reaching out and helping other women to reclaim their self-respect and dignity," says Clare Hanrahan, a writer and antiwar activist who served six months at Alderson two years ago on a trespassing charge.