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

By | May 6, 2021

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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.

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Suffragette being force-fed. Wikimedia Commons.

Alongside the moonshine slingers and sex workers were women’s rights groups like the Suffragettes who often found themselves in hot water with the US government.  After being arrested for protesting and trespassing on federal grounds in Washington D.C., many Suffragettes were sequestered in the dank and dirty corners of men’s prisons. The Suffragettes were often well educated, well connected, and sometimes wealthy women who had significant community support. Once word got out that they were being subjected to things like water torture and forced to strip in front of an all male staff, the public began to pressure the government to find safer accommodations, especially given that so few of these offenders were violent.

Thus, the Assistant U.S. Attorney General, Mabel Wildebrant, and warden Mary Harris sought to create an institution meant to incarcerate, but more importantly rehabilitate, their growing female prison population. Maybe the most important aspect of the Alderson Prison is it’s architecture, which purposely modelled itself after a local college, with large open windows and red brick. Instead of having one massive building with many little cells, Wildebrant chose to build several “cottages”, which were more like large boarding houses than a prison. Each cottage had its own kitchen and eating area, and women were more or less free to come and go as they wish. The grounds themselves had no walls or fences, and very little ground security as the rural location and steep hills served as a good enough deterrent for would be escapees.