Danbury prison's notable inmates to be spotlighted by museum

Photo of Kendra Baker

DANBURY — The Danbury Federal Correctional Institution has housed many notable and notorious individuals over the years, and the Danbury Museum & Historical Society plans to spotlight some of them as part of an online series.

This year, the museum’s online newsletters and social media accounts will feature information on some of the most famous and infamous inmates in the federal prison’s history — beginning with award-winning screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr.

Lardner was sentenced in July 1950 to one year in Danbury’s prison for contempt of Congress after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and refusing to answer questions about possible Communist affiliations.

He was one of 10 motion picture producers, directors and screenwriters — known as “the Hollywood Ten” — interrogated by the committee. According to Lardner’s obituary, he was an “unrepentant and fiercely outspoken witness.

As a result of their refusal to answer the committee’s questions, the “Hollywood Ten” members were imprisoned and blacklisted by Hollywood studios.

Lardner later wrote that during his time in the Danbury prison, he “became reacquainted” with John Parnell Thomas — a congressman from New Jersey who chaired the House Committee on Un-American Activities and spearheaded the effort to expose what he believed was Communist infiltration of motion pictures content in Hollywood.

Thomas had found himself imprisoned in the Danbury prison after being convicted of defrauding the government by putting fictitious workers on his congressional payroll.

Lardner wound up serving a little more than nine months in prison and went on to write the 1970 war film M*A*S*H, which was later adapted into a TV series. He shifted focus from screenwriting to books in 1981, and authored two novels and a memoir. He later died at the age of 85 in 2000.

It turns out Lardner was in fact a Communist, according to his obituary, but “felt that his political leanings were none of the government’s business.”

Other notable, former Danbury FCI inmates include:

 Robert Lowell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and conscientious objector who served several months after refusing to serve in World War II.

 Piper Kerman, who served 13 months for money laundering and went on to write “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” — a memoir of her prison experience that turned into an award-winning Netflix series.

 Lauryn Hill, a Grammy Award-winning singer and actress who served three months in 2013 for tax evasion.

  Teresa Giudice, cast member of Bravo TV’s “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” who was released in December 2015 after serving 11 of a 15-month sentence on bankruptcy and mail fraud charges.

 James Peck, an activist and conscientious objector imprisoned three years after refusing to serve in World War II.

The Danbury Museum & Historical Society plans to spotlight inmates in its newsletters and on social media under #FCIFridays.