Everyday prison life a world away from Stewart's norm

Friday, March 12, 2004

— The Danbury Federal Correctional Institution has next to nothing in common with Martha Stewart's world of porcelain pudding bowls and Egyptian cotton bedding.

The millionaire who taught America how to make buckwheat pillows and decorate with doilies is expected to spend 10 to 16 months sharing a toilet and working for about 12 cents an hour at the minimum-security women's prison, where the walls are drab concrete and the 1,300 inmates wear starched khaki jumpsuits.

"There's nothing soft or colorful or pleasant in the whole environment," said Caryl Hartjes, 68, a Roman Catholic nun from Wisconsin who served three months at Danbury for trespassing during a protest against the U.S. military.

Stewart, who has a home and a TV studio in Westport, could be sent to any of several women's facilities when she is sentenced in June for lying about a stock sale. But the Bureau of Prisons tries to place inmates within 500 miles of home, making Danbury the most likely choice, followed by Alderson, W.Va., 550 miles away.

Stewart's living situation would depend on whether she is assigned to Danbury's barracks-style prison camp or traditional cellblock housing. Either way, the queen of fine living will find things very different at Danbury.

When she arrives, she will be ordered to turn over any belongings. She will be quickly strip-searched.

"There's a guard. It's not too private. It's in this little alcove," said Joyce Ellwanger, 67, of Milwaukee, who served time last year for the same protest as Hartjes. "The guard will tell you to squat and cough. Your clothes will be sent home."

Then she will get her room assignment.

"When you hear this door slam behind you, you walk into a place full of sadness, bitterness and emptiness," said Susan McDougal, who served time in several prisons -- though not Danbury -- for refusing to testify in the Whitewater investigation.

"She's going to spend the first part of her time realizing life pretty much is over. You're getting broken down," McDougal said. "You understand that you're on somebody else's schedule, somebody else is in charge and nothing is yours."

If there is room in the 200-person prison camp and her probation officer's report recommends it, she will be sent there. If not, she will be sent either to a two-person cell or to a shared cubicle within a wide-open dormitory.

The walls are plain concrete and cannot be decorated. Inmates can personalize their space by hanging up to four photographs in their lockers. Stewart, who advises visitors to her Web site to search out bed linens with high thread counts, will not enjoy such luxuries.

"I don't know what the fabric is," said Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons. "Just plain. It's just general military issue."

The 62-year-old Stewart will get the bottom bunk because Danbury policy does not put women over 50 on the top.

Guards conduct security checks at 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. Inmates are not required to wake up, but sleeping through a flashlight sweep can be difficult.