MILL POINT, W.Va. -- "In all likelihood, there is no prison like Mill Point in the whole world," best-selling novelist Howard Fast wrote in a letter pitching a prospective magazine piece to his agent, Paul Reynolds, sometime in the late 1950s.
"Not that it is a resort," Fast continued. "It's a prison, but one turned toward the reclamation and not the destruction of men. It's a prison without cells, without guns or clubs -- a prison that embodied the most daring thinking of modern penology. And it works, and has worked, quietly and efficiently for 20 years."
Fast had more than a passing intellectual interest in Mill Point Prison Camp, a 300-inmate work camp in the Cranberry Glades area of West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest.
In 1950, he had been called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a panel formed in response to claims that Communist Party members and their sympathizers had infiltrated the federal government. Fast refused to testify against some colleagues who helped set up a fund to aid the widows of men who fought Fascists during the Spanish Civil War and was handed a three-month sentence for contempt of Congress, which he served at the West Virginia prison.
At Mill Point, Fast worked on a masonry crew by day and, at night, using a typewriter and paper made available to him by the warden, began work on a fictional account of a Roman slave rebellion that later became "Spartacus," probably his best-known novel. In 1960, the book was adapted into a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov.
Fast told his agent he was anxious to tell the story of the Mill Point facility, because "it is probably the best and most hopeful prison story in this country; and like most of our decencies, it hides its light under a bushel."
Mill Point Prison Camp opened in 1938, initially as a temporary facility to house inmate work crews used to build W.Va. 39 between Richwood and Marlinton. The camp, located along the headwaters of the Cranberry River about a half-mile north of the present-day Cranberry Mountain Nature Center, soon morphed into a minimum-security federal prison. It housed an eclectic blend of inmates, ranging from conscientious objectors to military service in World War II and the Korean War to moonshiners, petty thieves, pimps and McCarthy-era leftists like Fast. Most were serving terms ranging from 6 to 18 months.
The tents that sheltered the highway work crews gave way to dormitories, a dining hall, a sawmill, boiler plant, school building, craft shop, administration building, clinic and housing for the prison's staff of 30.
"This was not your typical prison," wrote St. Albans freelance writer Maureen Crockett, who spent part of her youth at Mill Point, where her father was the camp's parole officer, in a 1985 issue of Goldenseal. "The prison in the woods had no fences, no walls and minimum supervision. Inmates knew to stay inside the white posts spaced every 40 feet around their legal perimeter. Each had a 'Keep Inside' sign," and that was enough."
While escape was as easy as strolling into the surrounding forest, only about 20 escapes took place during the prison's 21-year existence.