I was a 60-year-old woman when I was first incarcerated in 2010 at Alderson Federal Prison Camp (FPC), one of the few federal women’s prison camps in the United States. A month before I entered prison, my friend Russ Rothman called to tell me Martha Stewart had served her time there when she was 63. He had googled Alderson, nicknamed “Camp Cupcake,” and had found they had tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool—more like a country club than a prison, he said. Russ assured me I would be okay…and instructed me to bring my racket.
My mother had Martha Stewart on her mind too. Not realizing that Martha had actually gone to trial and lost, she said, “Martha Stewart pled guilty and went to prison for six months. Why don’t you plead guilty, go to prison, and get this nightmare over with. You can’t beat city hall.” My mother also used my love of watching 24/7 TV news in her efforts to persuade me. She said, “At least you will get cable TV in prison. I didn’t get that in Auschwitz.” I had no words.
Ultimately, my mother was right: I couldn’t beat the government’s charges of tax evasion and mail fraud, even though I was innocent. And so, eight years after Martha went to prison, my case went to trial and I was convicted. But from the moment I entered Alderson, I realized it was no country club. After being fingerprinted and having my mug shot taken, I was given “newbie” clothes, that is, the clothes inmates wear for the first day only. The slip-on sneakers were two sizes too large; the bra had as little material as a G-string and didn’t hold my breasts in place. The oversized outfit could have fit two women.
After this initial intake, I waited with three other new arrivals in a freezing cell in the Receiving and Discharge (R & D) building. We got the prison bag lunch of a bologna sandwich, cookies, an apple, and a water. When we missed dinner, we got another bag of bologna sandwiches.
Soon after our arrival, R & D officers gave each of us a large laundry bag which contained a blanket, two sheets, soap, shampoo, a comb, a toothbrush, and, most importantly, “Maximum Security” deodorant.
The R & D building was separated from the sleeping quarters (the “units”) by a long stretch known as “Hallelujah Hill.” For some, this nickname was a reference to its proximity to the prison chapel, but for the older crowd, making it to the top merited a shout of “Hallelujah.” During my first trek to the Admissions and Orientation (A & O) units, I was forced to stop several times to catch my breath while carrying the heavy laundry bag. I lagged far behind the younger women.
During my first two weeks in prison, I went through orientation with thirty other women. Correctional officers showed us a film on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and emphasized there was to be no lesbian sex. I understood that to mean lesbian sex was the only kind of sex that merited punishment, as opposed to some of the contractors’ well-known proclivity for sexually abusing prisoners. They also lectured us on the rules of the compound, the different facilities, and told us we had to work.
In Alderson, everyone was required to work in the kitchen for their first 90 days. That is, everyone but Martha Stewart, who requested but was denied kitchen duty. I suspect she was refused because this chore might have given her an inkling of pleasure within the miserable prison environment. She was instead assigned instead to the humiliating task of mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets of the warden and other higher-ups.
My first job at the Alderson kitchen was cleaning floors after the lunch and dinner shift. Although I worked seven or eight hours a day, I earned only $5.25 during my first month. There were also few accommodations based on age—elderly women were given the exact same jobs as younger women; even older women who could barely walk had to endure the long work hours. And after our work was done, we were not permitted to go back to the unit between lunch and dinner. We were not allowed to read, do crossword puzzles, knit, play cards, or sleep. Instead, everyone had to spend long hours in plastic seats attached to the table. As an older woman, this took a real toll on me physically.
After my days of kitchen duty were up, I got transferred to the landscaping department, which meant that, at the age of 60, I was charged with the backbreaking work of mowing the lawns in the hot summer and shoveling snow in the winter. Once, I was assigned a heavy 1950s-style lawnmower but could not get it started without assistance. When I went to push it, I couldn’t even move it an inch.
After I went to landscaper and asked for a different assignment, he gave me a broom and instructed me to sweep the streets. I cleaned the road of rocks but quickly realized that the area would be filled again as soon as a truck came by. And so, I asked the officer if I could remove the stones and put them far from the road. He replied, “But then you would have nothing to do.”
At an age where working a physically demanding job for seven- and eight-hour days was grueling, I served as the Sisyphus of Alderson, sweeping rocks off the streets only to see my work undone by passing vehicles. My experience is far from unique. While there are 75,000 prisoners over the age of 60 that are under the jurisdiction of correctional authorities, accommodations that take into account the reality of aging behind bars are all too rare.
What I’ve come to realize is that although older people do commit crimes that warrant punishment, there are few reasons, public safety or otherwise, to incarcerate elders. Certainly, any basis for incarceration is outweighed by the negative consequences we experience behind bars. Instead, we need alternatives to incarceration that acknowledge that older people are too vulnerable a population to be held in our prisons and jails.
As for Martha Stewart, well, Martha was lucky. She went home to a billion dollar company. But as for me, I’m homeless, broke, and living proof that Alderson is no “Camp Cupcake.”