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1927

The first federal prison for women opens in West Virginia

The Federal Industrial Institution for Women, the first women’s federal prison, opens in Alderson, West Virginia. All women serving federal sentences of more than a year were to be brought here.

Run by Dr. Mary B. Harris, the prison’s buildings, each named after social reformers, sat atop 500 acres. One judge described the prison as a “fashionable boarding school.” In some respects the judge was correct: The overriding purpose of the prison was to reform the inmates, not punish them. The prisoners farmed the land and performed office work in order to learn how to type and file. They also cooked and canned vegetables and fruits.

Other women’s prisons had similar ideals. At Bedford Hills in New York, there were no fences, and the inmates lived in cottages equipped with their own kitchen and garden. The prisoners were even given singing lessons.

Reform efforts had a good chance for success since the women sent to these prisons were far from hardened criminals. At the Federal Industrial Institution, the vast majority of the women were imprisoned for drug and alcohol charges imposed during the Prohibition era.

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