Making Herself at Home
Seven weeks after her arrival in rural West Virginia, Stewart—who now wears dark-framed glasses instead of contacts, which are prohibited in prison—looks more like a revitalized spa-goer than a prisoner at a federal lockup. "It's just wild. She looks better than ever," says another recent visitor. Stewart, 63, has dropped 10 lbs. since starting to serve her five-month sentence for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Says Jose Figueroa, a printer from Akron, Ohio, who makes regular visits to his girlfriend Vicki Losh: "That woman is skinny now compared to the pictures of her."
The skinny on Stewart's diet: Avoiding the lousy prison food. On Thanksgiving Day she skipped the turkey and the trimmings to be with her mother, younger sister Laura Plimpton, brother-in-law and niece in the crowded visiting room. "It was a big relief for all of us to see Martha so healthy, well-adjusted and well-liked," Plimpton, 49, tells PEOPLE. "She looks relaxed and feels that the time is passing quickly."
Following her family's departure, according to Figueroa, Stewart made pasta with olive oil with inmate Lisa Guarino, 42, a Bostonian known in the prison as "Little Italy" who is serving a 40-month sentence on a cocaine-dealing charge. Though Stewart still tries to do what cooking she can—for instance, the crab-apple jelly she whipped up a few weeks ago—she doesn't have much to work with. "She was hoping she could do more cooking in the microwave," says a source close to Stewart. "But there's no ingredients in the commissary."
Much more to Stewart's taste are Alderson's workout facilities, which include a Stairmaster and free weights. She has become a regular visitor to the gym and spent Thanksgiving evening there doing an abdominal workout and some yoga for an hour. She also gets plenty of exercise performing her assigned job of cleaning up the Alderson administrative offices five days a week. "Cleaning is something she knows how to do and she knows how to do it very, very well," says a friend. "She doesn't dwell on it, she just does it."
Despite press reports to the contrary, her down-to-earth attitude seems to be helping Stewart make friends with other inmates. She continues to room with Kimberly Renee Bennett, 33, a convicted cocaine dealer. Stewart recently won major props from inmates after a popular corrections officer's sudden death. "Martha made the wreaths for a little memorial service they had for him," says Brooke McNeal, of Asheville, N.C., who was visiting her mother, of the decorations Stewart created from wildflowers, red maple leaves and grasses. "From everything my mother says, she's really nice."
During the next few weeks Stewart should endear herself even more to her fellow inmates—well, at least some of them—with the start of Alderson's annual holiday decorating contest, in which the prison's 10 housing units create surprisingly elaborate tableaux with limited materials from inside the prison. This year's theme: Peace on Earth. "The girls really go all out for Christmas," says Pearl McCurdy, a retired Alderson corrections officer who has judged past contests. "There's some very talented people in there, they just happen to have sticky fingers. Martha's going to have some real competition."
Pam Lambert. Alicia C. Shepard in Alderson and Sharon Cotliar in New York City