The First Federal Prison For Women Was Opened In 1928, West Virginia (And How It Went)

By Grace Taylor
Ariel View of Alderson Prison. Wikimedia Commons.

Nestled in the rolling hills of Alderson, West Virginia, sits the very first federal prison for women in the United States, the Federal Industrial Institute for Women which opened on April 30, 1927. The first federal men’s prison, by contrast, was the Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas which the Department of Justice formed in 1895. Why the delay? Well, typically, crimes were punished at a local level and there were few federal crimes to begin with, and up until the late 1910’s, women broke (or at least got caught breaking) very few of them.

The rare women who did break federal law were usually housed in sectioned off areas of men’s prisons, were they were not only subject to the inhumane conditions prisoners of the time were made to suffer, like insufficient nutrition, physical abuse, and intense insolation, but women inmates too often also faced sexual assault by the hands of the an all male guard system. However, the turn of the century saw a strengthening of the federal government and it’s laws, and suddenly the female prison population swelled as Prohibition made the manufacturing and sale of alcohol illegal, and the Selective Service Act of 1917 made prostitution a federal crime in an effort to stem the spread of venereal disease among it’s armed forces.