Billie Holiday at the Downbeat club, a jazz club in New York City. Wikimedia Commons.
Instead of sitting in their cells in isolation, the women spent their time working as seamstresses or in the farm and dairy, contributing to the upkeep and day to day life of the prison. It was the warden Harris’ belief was that if the facility could create a sense of community and security while offering inmates a job, they would be able to develop the social and work skills needed to reenter society. On November 24, 1928, Harris welcomed over a thousand congressmen, governors, and other dignitaries to the opening ceremony, and surprised the guests by having the inmates host tours and serve afternoon tea. Some visitors found the experience so charming that they willingly stayed over night!
The prison was maybe even too comfortable, as a few prisoners, like Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron and Nazi propogandist Mildred Gillard (aka Axis Sally), actually waived parole and chose to stay in Alderson longer than they were required.
The prison has housed many famous inmates, from illustrious jazz singer Billie Holiday (one year for narcotics possession) to America’s favorite cookbook author, Martha Stewart (5 months for obstruction of justice) whose stay garnered so much controversy that outlets began referring to Alderson as “Camp Cupcake” for its seemingly easy going vibe. However, the facility is not without it’s violent offenders. One of its earliest inmates was none other than Kathryn Kelly, accomplice and wife to gangster George Barnes, better known as Machine Gun Kelly, who was sentenced to life for the kidnapping of business tycoon Charles F. Urschel.