She's Halfway Home

It’s not exactly a rockin’ New Year’s Eve at Alderson Federal Prison Camp—no champagne, no loud music, certainly no foie gras. Some of the 1,000 inmates quietly mark the occasion by attending a service in the prison chapel. It is a somber but hopeful service. “Around here, time is measured carefully,” says prison chaplain Elizabeth Walker. “People are counting the days and months until they get out, and it’s a big milestone when the year changes, especially if 2005 is the year you get out. All of a sudden the thought of going home seems a lot closer.”

For Alderson’s most famous inmate, who will be free in early March, it looks to be a happy New Year indeed. And yet what is surprising about Martha Stewart—halfway through her five-month sentence for conspiracy and obstruction of justice—is how well she is doing in the slammer. Far from breaking her spirit, her stint at the West Virginia prison has given Stewart a chance, friends say, to focus her prodigious energy not on making the perfect canapé but on remaking herself. “This has been a time for reflection and for gathering strength,” says her close friend, businessman Charles Simonyi. “Martha is making the most of her predicament.”

Those who have visited Stewart in prison say the change in her is quite apparent. “In the last eight years she became so stretched in terms of what she had to do, and that didn’t always allow her to be the thoughtful, gentle person I knew her to be,” says a close friend. “But now there is an enforced time to be by herself.” Without meetings to attend or a to-do list to stick to, Stewart devotes herself to physical—not fiscal—fitness. She takes daily power walks around the manicured prison grounds, hits the treadmill and weight machines after dinner and regularly practices yoga with other inmates. Stewart has lost at least 10 lbs. since entering Alderson Oct. 8. “She looks better than ever,” says her friend. “She looks like she’s been to the Golden Door Spa for a month.”

Even more important, Stewart, 63, is having an emotional renaissance. In the months after she was ensnared in the ImClone stock scandal and during her tense six-week trial, Stewart withdrew from the public. But in the confines of her minimum-security prison, she has opened herself up again. “She has formed a group of friends down there, and they hope to continue a relationship when they are out,” says Manhattan art dealer Richard Feigen, who is Stewart’s neighbor in Bedford, N.Y., and who has exchanged several letters with her. Any awe that inmates felt at having a celebrity in their midst vanished as Stewart accepted being just another prisoner. “She is accessible to everybody there,” says her friend. “Everybody feels they can come over and introduce their sister or mother to her. And when they do, they say, ‘Martha works with me in administration,’ or ‘We exercise together.’ They always introduce her as a person, not as a celebrity.”

Stewart has bonded with her fellow inmates in real and surprising ways. Most are years younger and in prison on drug charges, but that has not stopped Stewart from serving as something of a counselor. Recently she consoled a new inmate she saw crying in the visitor’s center and invited her to join in a prison yoga session. “You’ll be fine, you’ll see,” Stewart told her. “If I can do it, you can do it.”

She shares her books with her new friends, reads to them from letters she receives and advises them about their lives after prison. The hard-luck stories she hears have apparently genuinely touched her. A recent posting on her Web site asks fans to take up the issue of unfair mandatory minimum sentences imposed on nonviolent first-time offenders. “Martha is thinking about what can be done during the time inmates are incarcerated to give them a better chance for when they get out,” says Walter E. Dellinger III, the attorney handling Stewart’s appeal. “These are issues she’s likely to have a continuing interest in.”

In the meantime Stewart brings her own brand of domesticity to Alderson. Ever the hostess, she invited inmates to her dormlike room for a small New Year’s Eve party. Stewart likes to organize the board games available to inmates and guests—perfectionist habits die hard—and has been seen sorting Scrabble pieces to make sure each set has the right number of letters. She has even befriended a prison cat. “It’s her little pet,” says her friend.

Perhaps only Martha Stewart could make prison sound homey. And yet it’s not all peaches and brandy buttercream. On her Web site she refers to the “bad food” and to her daily chores—”washing, scrubbing, sweeping, vacuuming, raking leaves and much more.” Her phone calls are automatically disconnected after 15 minutes, and she is of course under constant surveillance. “It’s not a country club,” says Sister Clare Hanrahan, a Catholic nun and peace activist who spent six months in Alderson.

Still, Stewart gathers strength from the world outside. Several friends and relatives, including her daughter Alexis, 39, regularly make the long drive to visit; her mother, Martha Kostyra, 90, came on Thanksgiving. She has also entertained Survivor and The Apprentice creator Mark Burnett, who will produce a lifestyle TV show with Stewart once she finishes the five months of house arrest in her $15 million Bedford estate that will follow her time at Alderson. “She’s a very smart woman who is great television,” says Burnett. “I’ve got my sleeves rolled up and cannot wait until she comes out of jail.” Neither can publishers: Stewart is spending hours in her prison room working on a book.

Whatever she writes will surely reflect her experiences in prison. On Christmas Day, Stewart attended a service that featured a gospel choir. Halfway through, “the choir got funky with ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ and I tell you, Martha was getting into it,” says Jose Figueroa, who was at the service with his girlfriend, an inmate at Alderson. “Martha’s got a little funk in her; she was jamming and clapping.”

This, say friends, is the new Martha Stewart—less driven, more peaceful and, yes, funkier. “She has changed enormously,” says her friend. “She has come back to who she always was.”

Alex Tresniowski. Sharon Cotliar in New York City, Alexandra Rockey Fleming in Alderson and Alicia Shepard in Washington, D.C.

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