The women of ‘Camp Cupcake’

by Jordan Green

YES! Weekly had hoped to get the lowdown on Martha Stewart’s stay at the minimum-security federal prison camp in Alderson, W.Va. from her roommate ‘— reportedly a Greensboro woman up for cocaine distribution ‘— before the diva of home decorating was released in April. Some details of life inside the penitentiary known as ‘Camp Cupcake’ leaked out following a visit last spring by US Rep. Howard Coble, R-Greensboro, to jailed former NC Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps.

We now have a glimpse of the Alderson women’s prison camp from perhaps the third most famous inmate. Manlin Chee, like Stewart and Phipps, is a headstrong, assertive woman, but unlike her fellow inmates who made their names in entrepreneurship and government, Chee’s reputation comes from her disdain for US immigration law and policy.

The former immigration lawyer who pled guilty to falsifying documents to help her clients illegally stay in the United States and outspoken critic of the USA Patriot Act reported to Alderson on April 22, shortly after Stewart’s departure. Following a guilty plea in November 2004, Chee was sentenced in March to a year in prison by a federal judge in Winston-Salem.

In a letter circulated by e-mail to her supporters, Chee reports that she initially had some difficulty adjusting to the discipline of prison life, but writes admiringly of the prison’s bucolic landscape and notes that she’s had the opportunity to network with other radical activists.

‘“It looked like a small college campus ‘— or rather like an all-girls’ prep school ‘— women walking around in khakis and gray sweatshirts or T-shirts,’” she writes of her first impression. ‘“The grounds were gorgeous. Spring had barely arrived and the dogwoods and daffodils were just coming into bloom.’”

As a new ‘commit,’ she was assigned to Cottage J-11, now known as ‘Martha’s Cottage,’ after its most famous resident. Her roommate was a young Puerto Rican woman from New York City in prison for manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine.

Not long after her arrival Chee writes that she was assigned extra duty chores of cleaning TV rooms for sleeping through a 10 p.m. prisoner count and then stumbling into a bathroom half asleep in the middle of a 12:30 a.m. count.

Among the activists Chee has befriended at Alderson is Carol Gilbert, a Catholic nun from Maryland who was convicted of sabotage and destruction of government property during a civil disobedience at a Colorado nuclear missile site in 2002. Gilbert was released on May 23.

Chee’s letter ends on a defiant note.

‘“We have truly wild and incredibly dumb women here and then we have activists like Sister Carol,’” she writes. ‘“The FBI will be sorry they got me together with some of the most dedicated women activists I’ve ever met!’”

– Jordan Green