A look inside the ‘Disneyland’ prison Ghislaine Maxwell hopes to spend her 20-year sentence in

Lauryn Hill, ‘Queen of the Mean’ Leona Helmsley and Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman have all done time at FCI Danbury

Bevan Hurley
Monday 04 July 2022 06:07 BST
Ghislaine Maxwell sentenced to 20 years in prison over sex trafficking crimes

From music stars to billionaire hotel heiresses, the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, has been home to some of the most famous female inmates in United States history.

The low-security prison, sometimes referred to as Club Fed, is where convicted child-sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell has requested to serve her 20 year federal prison term.

In stark contrast to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where the 60-year-old spent nearly two years awaiting trial, FCI Danbury has a reputation as one of the more hospitable penitentiaries, and has garnered a special place in US pop culture.

Most famously, the fictional Litchfield Prison in the hit Netflix comedy Orange is the New Black is partly based on FCI Danbury.

Author Piper Kerman spent 13 months at the prison in the mid- 2000s after her conviction for money laundering and drug trafficking.

Her memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison was based on her experiences behind bars and later turned into the Emmy-winning TV series.

An aerial view of FCI Danbury, where Ghislaine Maxwell wants to serve her 20 year sentence

Six-time Grammy winner Lauryn Hill, 47, spent three months in FCI Danbury in 2013 for failing to pay about $1m in taxes.

On the day of her release from prison, Ms Hill released a new song called Consumerism .

The R&B singer had “wanted to get this music out while she was incarcerated, as it is a product of the space she was in while she was going through some of the challenges she has been faced with recently”, according to a promotional release at the time.

Leona Helmsley, often referred to as the “Queen of the Mean”, was convicted in 1989 on 33 counts of tax evasion, tax fraud and mail fraud, and sentenced to a four-year prison term.

Leona and Harry Helmsley

Ms Helmsley married hotel mogul Harry Helmsley in 1972, and became synonymous with the “greed is good” mantra of the 1980s.

According to a biography written by her former lawyer Sandor Frankel, she was overheard saying: “We don’t pay taxes, only the little people pay taxes.”

When Ms Helmsley died in 2007 at the age of 87, she left behind a $5bn estate.

The Connecticut facility was also temporarily home to former TheReal Housewives of New Jersey star Teresa Giudice.

Ms Giudice served 11 months behind bars at FCI Danbury in 2015 after pleading guilty to bankruptcy and mail fraud in a scheme with her husband, Joe Giudice.

In an interview with Good Morning America after her release, the reality TV star described her incarceration as living in “hell”.

Joe and Teresa Giudice leave court after facing charges of bankruptcy and mail fraud

“There was mould in the bathrooms. There was not running water constantly. The showers were freezing cold. The living conditions were really horrible,” she said.

“There were some nights that we didn’t even have heat… it was hell.”

Outside of Orange Is the New Black, the prison has provided a gritty backdrop to several other television shows.

In the popular Showtime series Weeds, the pot-dealing protagonist Nancy Botwin, played by Mary-Louise Parker, serves a stint at FCI Danbury.

Danielle Brooks, Schilling, Vicky Jeudy and Samira Wiley in Orange is the New Black

And in the legal drama Suits, Patrick J. Adams’s character Mike Ross was sentenced to hard time at Danbury.

Maxwell, 60, made more than 100 complaints about her treatment in prison during her time at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

She claimed to have shared her cell with rats and that she was subjected to regular cavity searches and abused by guards. She also alleged that her food was infested with maggots.

Justin Paperny, an expert on federal prisons, said Danbury would be like “Disneyland” compared to her experience at the MDC.

“She’s been in this wretched, dank, cold, filthy detention centre in Brooklyn which has really conditioned her for confinement,” Mr Paperny told The Times.

“She’s really endured the worst of what prison can offer — in solitary confinement, dealing with Covid and quarantine and arguably the worst detention centre in America.

“People are surprised to hear that once she is sentenced and makes her way to the federal correctional institution, she will actually feel like she’s in Disneyland compared to where she is now.”

Opened in 1940, FCI Danbury is located about 55 miles north of New York City and became a dedicated female prison in 1993.

The prison offers classes on everything from group therapy programmes for inmates with post-traumatic stress disorder to “hobby craft and music” lessons.

Inmates can also take circuit training and aerobics classes.

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