Martha Stewart expressed disappointment upon learning that she would be serving her sentence at the federal women’s prison in Alderson, W.Va. Its remoteness, she said through a lawyer prior to her arrival, would make it difficult for friends, family members and attorneys to visit. But when they do, it is unlikely that many will be staying at the non-profit Alderson House of Hospitality. Its clientele consists primarily of low-income persons who, after driving hundreds of miles, are only too grateful to sleep in surroundings that, though humble, are clean, safe and supportive.
Alderson House’s co-managers, John and Hillary Benish, consider theirs to be a Gospel-based ministry. “We end up receiving more than we give,” said Hillary in an interview. Together, the Benishes offer not only lodging, but food, transportation and counseling to families visiting loved ones at the correctional facility, which currently holds over 1,000 women. With the completion of a new building, that number will jump to 1,400, a sign that the rate of incarceration for women is growing even faster than it is for men throughout the United States.
Because of the remote location of the prison, technically known as the Alderson Federal Prison Camp, many women receive no visits at all, a circumstance that adds to the pain of the incarceration experience itself. The visitors’ travel difficulties are worsened by the fact that both Greyhound and Amtrak have ended their services to the Alderson area. “But if they can get to within an hour’s drive from here, we’ll pick them up,” John said. The inaccessibility of the prison, in a mountainous region of southeastern West Virginia, is typical of many penal facilities throughout the country. The Benishes see this as a reflection of an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality prevalent in the American criminal justice system, as well as indicative of a not-in-my-backyard attitude. Both viewpoints represent what they call a sad commentary on how offenders are dealt with, whether at the state or federal level.
Because of what they see as a promise of more jobs in economically depressed areas, however, rural communities continue to vie with one another for the construction of new facilities. But that promise seldom holds true, because nowadays relatively few of the new jobs go to local residents. “The prison industry has become career oriented,” Hillary explained, “and in the hiring of personnel it focuses on a larger geographical area than in earlier times.” At the Alderson facility, for instance, she said that new employees must sign a statement expressing their willingness to re-locate if asked to do so. Years ago, many local people worked at the prison, and some lived on the property itself. The town of Alderson still has retirees from “the institution,” as residents call it.
Although it is a minimum security facility, the sentences the women have received even for nonviolent, first-time offenses are generally long. The average stay is five-and-a-half years. Such sentences are far more than Martha Stewart’s few months for lying about a stock sale. By way of contrast with her offense, the Benishes said that drug offenses account for 60 to 75 percent of the convictions for which most of the women are serving time.
Drug offenses, in fact, continue to constitute the primary cause for our ever expanding prison population—primarily because of the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions adopted decades ago at both federal and state levels. Intended to be a primary weapon in the war against drugs, these laws all but eliminated judicial discretion. Thus, a first-time offender convicted of selling a small amount of a controlled substance might have to serve as many years as a prior offender guilty of more serious crimes—including homicide.
Among the harshest laws of this kind are the so-called Rockefeller laws in New York State, which call for a penalty of 15 years for the sale of two ounces of a controlled substance like cocaine or for the possession of four ounces. The consequences of these mandatory minimum laws are evident at Alderson. The Benishes point out that as many as three quarters of the women there are first-time offenders. Of these, about half were convicted not of selling drugs, but of conspiracy. Their connection with a drug sale may have been as peripheral as passing on a message.
The Alderson prison has the advantage of offering a nine-month drug rehabilitation program that the Benishes describe as useful. Those who successfully complete it, they said, have as much as a year cut from their sentences. But as with substance abuse programs in other penal institutions, Alderson’s has a waiting list. A further restriction limits entrance into the program to those who can prove their addiction or those with a court order mandating treatment. “We feel,” they said, “that the program would be of benefit to almost all the women.” But when the Benishes proposed that to the prison authorities, “they just laughed at our suggestion.”
An even graver issue concerns offspring. A majority of the women at Alderson have children for whom they were the primary care givers at the time of their arrest. The Benishes said that many of their guests are fathers. They—along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives—perforce become the children’s primary caregivers. The psychological and material costs are great, not just for the substitute parents, but for the children themselves, who are growing up without their birth mothers. Studies have shown that children with one parent in prison are at high risk of running afoul of the juvenile justice system. When both parents are incarcerated, the Benishes observed, the risk is even greater, no matter how loving the surrogate parents may be. It is these who primarily fill the Alderson Hospitality House from Friday to midday Monday. As many as 67 people can be accommodated, “with some squeezing and good will,” as Hillary put it. Prison visits are not allowed on other days, but the Benishes are kept busy with “pick-ups”—relatives and boyfriends who come during the week to pick up incarcerated women on the day of their release.
Knowing that their guests are generally hard pressed financially, the Benishes make no charge for the lodging or the meals they provide. Some guests leave donations, but the bulk of the operating cost is met through their newsletter, The Trumpet. The bonds among the guests, particularly among those who have met there before, often become so strong that the Benishes speak of a virtual fraternity, one that includes the Benishes themselves. “Because we eat our meals together, and because guests often share bedrooms, we get to know one another well,” Hillary said. These bonds uniting the guests are strengthened further when they encounter one another at the prison; family members of one prisoner might be introduced by that inmate to another, who introduces her own visitors.
Although Hillary and John have been at the hospitality house for close to a decade, it was already well established by the time of their arrival. In the mid-1970’s, another husband and wife, who had accompanied several children to see their mother at the prison, saw the need. They urged the peace activist community in Washington, D.C., to help establish a house for visitors so that they would not have to sleep in their cars. Dorothy Day also provided encouragement and helped to raise funds to begin the ministry. During those first years, several couples volunteered to manage Alderson House. The Benishes are the fifth to do so, and they came in answer to what they felt was a call to work among the poor. “In the psalms, we read that ‘the Lord hears the cry of the poor’,” John said, “so if you want to hear God, you need to be close to them.”
The Benishes’ commitment to their work among the poor is reflected in their personal lifestyle: bone simple. They do the cooking for the guests. For heating fuel, they burn wood that they gather themselves, and they tend the garden that provides a substantial portion of the food. They also do all the cleaning, including washing the sheets from the main house and a more recently acquired second building, as well as from the bedrooms in the house whose lower floor serves as the local Catholic church. Apart from two elderly women volunteers who provide some assistance (one washes the towels), they have only one full-time volunteer—a guest from Tennessee, a former handyman, who stayed on to be close to his wife after she received a long sentence. “They lost everything, even their house,” Hillary said, “but his strong faith background led us to invite him to work with us.”
In some respects, the factor that binds together guests, volunteers and the Benishes themselves most firmly is their faith—Christian and non-Christian alike. (The Benishes are Catholic.) “On Saturday evening, we have sessions of prayer and sharing for anyone who wants to attend,” Hillary said. “A little Scripture is read, and then we bring our concerns to the Lord.” These gatherings, she added, have been supportive not only for the guests, but for the Benishes too, helping them to “clarify some of our own issues.” Hillary Benish spoke of how “we all try to be brothers and sisters to one another—we’re not up here and they’re down there.” This is one of the reasons why Hillary and John agree that they receive more than they give.