ALDERSON, W.Va. – From scrubbing floors to raking leaves, Martha Stewart (search) spent the past five months performing the sort of tasks ordinarily done by the hired help.
She also foraged for dandelions and other wild greens, concocted recipes in a microwave, even ate from the vending machines, heaven forbid.
That could all come to an end as early as Friday, when the foremost authority on gracious living gets out of prison in time for the spring gardening season.
Instead of working for pennies a day at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp (search), Stewart will once again collect her $900,000-a-year salary while serving five months of home confinement at her Bedford, N.Y., estate for her part in a stock scandal.
Margaret Roach, editor in chief of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO), tells fans that Stewart has passed the time in prison much as she does at home — cooking, gardening, making crafts and exercising.
The terms were just redefined: "Exercise" has meant walks around the prison grounds with daughter Alexis and a nightly yoga class with fellow inmates. "Crafts" became crocheting, creating a ceramic Nativity scene and taking part in a Christmas decorating contest. (Her team lost.)
During her stay at the women's prison in the Appalachian hills nearly 300 miles from Washington, Stewart was on maintenance duty, scrubbing floors and cleaning offices. Some inmates complained to the tabloids that she was given a cushy job, claiming the 63-year-old Stewart was spared snow-shoveling duty.
Some of the tabloids said Stewart skirted the rules behind bars, stealing crabapples from trees and taking eggs from the dining hall to make egg salad in her room. Some inmates even took to calling her the Contraband Queen for allegedly hoarding items off-limits to prisoners in their rooms. (Her lawyer David Chesnoff said he had not heard such allegations.)
By many accounts, prison workers found her to be a pleasant inmate. She even posed for pictures with fellow inmates' families.
"So what if she lost the decorating contest or took some condiments?" said Alderson store owner Betty Alderson. "I think people are looking for dirty laundry."
TV producer Mark Burnett, who is working on a new show with Stewart, said recently on "Oprah": "She hasn't complained once about being in jail. The afternoon I was there, she was going to get a job cleaning the floor waxing machine. Imagine that job. But Martha didn't complain. She said, `Gimme some paraffin, turpentine and a wire brush and I'll get right to it.'"
The celebrity homemaker also showed a softer side, writing about the plight of some of the 1,100 other inmates. "Many of them have been here for years — devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of family," she said, urging people to press for reforms in the sentencing guidelines for nonviolent first-time offenders.
Alderson resident Neta Roush said she is interested to hear what Stewart has to say about mandatory sentencing. "I really feel she will open a dialogue into this, which is a long time coming," Roush said.
Stewart entered prison — or what her friends call "intermission" — on Oct. 8 as federal inmate No. 55170-054. Among her visitors were Barbara Walters (search).
Stewart posted a few letters on her Web site, www.marthatalks.com, thanking fans "again and again, for your support and encouragement." Her last posting was at Christmas: "I am fine and looking forward to being home, getting back to my valuable work, to creating, cooking, and making television."
All in all, too much attention is being focused on Stewart, said Alderson resident Karen Hostetter. "We've had several famous prisoners in Alderson," Hostetter said, citing Tokyo Rose (search) and presidential assailant Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (search).