This Day in Criminal Justice History: November 14, 1928
On this day, November 14, 1928, Alderson Federal Prison officially opened in Alderson, West Virginia.
It wasn’t called Alderson Federal Prison. Instead, it was christened with the lengthy title the Federal Industrial Reformatory and Industrial Farm for Women.
However, it is unlikely that you know the name of the federal official whose encouragement brought about this first federal prison for women. Yet, she might be said to be one of the most influential figures in criminal justice history in the 20th Century.
Her name is Mabel Walker Willebrandt, and during her lifetime she was referred to as the “The First Lady of Law.” A very appropriate designation since she achieved a number of firsts in her career. For instance, she was among the first two female Assistant Attorney Generals for the U.S. She was the first woman to head the Tax Division in the Department of Justice. She was the first – maybe only — woman in the American criminal justice system to get her face on the cover of Time Magazine. And, she argued more cases – more than 40 – in front of the U.S. Supreme Court than any other woman (although two contemporary female attorneys are lauded as having the record at just over 30 each).
But if she had accomplished nothing more than being the guiding influence that helped bring about the prison we know today as the Federal Prison Camp, Alderson, Mabel Willebrandt would still deserve a prominent place in criminal justice history. As an attorney and as the U.S. Assistant Attorney General, she was well aware that women were housed in all-male prisons, where they were often sexually assaulted by both inmates and guards. She also recognized that a prison for women was desperately needed and in her position in the Department of Justice, she was in a unique position to help get a prison for women built.
In 1927, before the prison was officially opened, 174 women were placed in the facility, which would serve as a model prison for years after it opened. It was modeled after a boarding school offering education with no armed guards and no fenced grounds. Originally made up of 14 cottages built in a house shoe pattern, the prison had mostly work-oriented facilities designed for minor federal offenders. About 30 women lived in each cottage. Most of the women inmates, even in the early years, were imprisoned for drug and alcohol charges — mostly imposed during the Prohibition era. The first warden was Mary B. Harris, who was personally chosen by Willebrandt.
Alderson has housed some well-known inmates over its lifetime. Billie Holiday went there in 1947 for possession of narcotics. Both Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose (Iva Toguri D’Aquino) spent their time in prison there after World War II. Sara Jane Moore, who tried to assassinate President Ford, was housed there – until she tried to escape and then she was transferred to a more secure facility. Two other inmates were Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a co-founder of the ACLU, and Martha Stewart, convicted of insider trading.
The minimum security prison camp looks like a college campus and is frequently referred to by the derisive nickname “Camp Cupcake” because it seems like easy time. On the other hand, few violent female prisoners are ever sent to The Federal Prison Camp, Alderson.