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The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison

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This singular history of a prison, and the queer women and trans people held there, is a window into the policing of queerness and radical politics in the twentieth century. The Women’s House of Detention, a landmark that ushered in the modern era of women’s imprisonment, is now largely forgotten. But when it stood in New York City’s Greenwich Village, from 1929 to 1974, it This singular history of a prison, and the queer women and trans people held there, is a window into the policing of queerness and radical politics in the twentieth century. The Women’s House of Detention, a landmark that ushered in the modern era of women’s imprisonment, is now largely forgotten. But when it stood in New York City’s Greenwich Village, from 1929 to 1974, it was a nexus for the tens of thousands of women, transgender men, and gender-nonconforming people who inhabited its crowded cells. Some of these inmates—Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, Afeni Shakur—were famous, but the vast majority were incarcerated for the crimes of being poor and improperly feminine. Today, approximately 40 percent of the people in women’s prisons identify as queer; in earlier decades, that percentage was almost certainly higher. Historian Hugh Ryan explores the roots of this crisis and reconstructs the little-known lives of incarcerated New Yorkers, making a uniquely queer case for prison abolition—and demonstrating that by queering the Village, the House of D helped defined queerness for the rest of America. From the lesbian communities forged through the Women’s House of Detention to the turbulent prison riots that presaged Stonewall, this is the story of one building and much more: the people it caged, the neighborhood it changed, and the resistance it inspired.


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This singular history of a prison, and the queer women and trans people held there, is a window into the policing of queerness and radical politics in the twentieth century. The Women’s House of Detention, a landmark that ushered in the modern era of women’s imprisonment, is now largely forgotten. But when it stood in New York City’s Greenwich Village, from 1929 to 1974, it This singular history of a prison, and the queer women and trans people held there, is a window into the policing of queerness and radical politics in the twentieth century. The Women’s House of Detention, a landmark that ushered in the modern era of women’s imprisonment, is now largely forgotten. But when it stood in New York City’s Greenwich Village, from 1929 to 1974, it was a nexus for the tens of thousands of women, transgender men, and gender-nonconforming people who inhabited its crowded cells. Some of these inmates—Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, Afeni Shakur—were famous, but the vast majority were incarcerated for the crimes of being poor and improperly feminine. Today, approximately 40 percent of the people in women’s prisons identify as queer; in earlier decades, that percentage was almost certainly higher. Historian Hugh Ryan explores the roots of this crisis and reconstructs the little-known lives of incarcerated New Yorkers, making a uniquely queer case for prison abolition—and demonstrating that by queering the Village, the House of D helped defined queerness for the rest of America. From the lesbian communities forged through the Women’s House of Detention to the turbulent prison riots that presaged Stonewall, this is the story of one building and much more: the people it caged, the neighborhood it changed, and the resistance it inspired.

46 review for The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison

  1. 4 out of 5

    Erik

    Hugh Ryan's The Women's House of Detention is a little bite of queer history that opened my eyes to a whole world I didn’t know existed. The "Women's House of D" was constructed in Greenwich Village in New York City at the twilight of the Great Depression. From the beginning this jail acted as an avatar for the push and pull of prison reformers fighting institutional governments: the jails 400-bed capacity would be overwhelmed continuously throughout the life of the jail. In the 50 years that the Hugh Ryan's The Women's House of Detention is a little bite of queer history that opened my eyes to a whole world I didn’t know existed. The "Women's House of D" was constructed in Greenwich Village in New York City at the twilight of the Great Depression. From the beginning this jail acted as an avatar for the push and pull of prison reformers fighting institutional governments: the jails 400-bed capacity would be overwhelmed continuously throughout the life of the jail. In the 50 years that the Women's House of D. stood in the middle of the (queer) cultural capital of the world - Greenwich Village -, and it would host sex workers, drug addicts, Angela Davis, butches, femmes, and everyone in between. And in playing host to these victims of a violently inequitable society, Greenwich Village and a women's jail would become intertwined playing a central role in the development of radical queer politics, the Black Panthers, and Stonewall. In The Women's House of Detention Hugh Ryan establishes himself as an essential queer historian not only because of his impressive archival knowledge and well-written prose, but because he is able to spot pieces of queer history that lay under layers of dust, forgotten by most. A book about the queer history of a women's prison is just such a perfect project for Ryan. For lovers of queer history, feminist history, legal history, and stories of fighting against the carceral system: don't miss one of the best nonfiction reads of 2022.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Schulman

    A truly radical, moral and exciting history that will blow your mind. Ryan argues that it was the creation of a women's prison in the West Village, that helped center lesbian life in that area. Since lesbians are poorer (no men's incomes), de facto marginalized, and more often deprived of family support, lesbians and queer women and trans men have always been over-represented in prisons. Using records documenting poor, white, Black, and Latina women incarcerated for criminalized lives, Ryan show A truly radical, moral and exciting history that will blow your mind. Ryan argues that it was the creation of a women's prison in the West Village, that helped center lesbian life in that area. Since lesbians are poorer (no men's incomes), de facto marginalized, and more often deprived of family support, lesbians and queer women and trans men have always been over-represented in prisons. Using records documenting poor, white, Black, and Latina women incarcerated for criminalized lives, Ryan shows us the profound injustice of prisons themselves, and how lesbians have been demeaned and yet tried to survive. The book ends with queer takes on Andrea Dworkin, Afeni Shakur, and Angela Davis, all of whom were incarcerated at #10 Greenwich. A game changer from a community-based historian.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nev

    Just give me all the queer history books. I really enjoyed Hugh Ryan’s previous book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, so I was excited to learn that he was publishing another book in the same vein. The Women’s House of Detention traces the history of the prison of the same name that was in use in Greenwich Village from 1929 through 1974. The book shows the horrors of what went on in the facility, mostly through the eyes of the queer women and transmasc people who were imprisoned there. This book was an Just give me all the queer history books. I really enjoyed Hugh Ryan’s previous book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, so I was excited to learn that he was publishing another book in the same vein. The Women’s House of Detention traces the history of the prison of the same name that was in use in Greenwich Village from 1929 through 1974. The book shows the horrors of what went on in the facility, mostly through the eyes of the queer women and transmasc people who were imprisoned there. This book was an excellent mix of learning about the lives of queer people in the early 20th century in New York and also learning about the injustices that they faced in the legal system and the harsh ways they were treated after being released. The archives and files that Hugh Ryan had access to provided so much information into the lives of everyday people and not just famous women who were able to publish their own books about their experiences. It was illuminating to read about the ties between the prison and the Black Panthers, feminist, and the gay liberation movements and how women like Angela Davis and Afeni Shakur were impacted by their time in the House of D. Also, learning about how the prison was just down the street from the Stonewall Inn and that the people inside the prison rioted alongside the people at Stonewall was fascinating. I feel like anyone interested in queer history or learning more about how awful the prison and criminal legal systems are should read this book. It doesn’t shy away from showing the true horrors in these institutions. And while the book is mainly focused on the past, Hugh Ryan does include facts about how many of the issues at the House of D are still issues that people face today. Thank you to the publisher for providing an advance copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  4. 4 out of 5

    agata

    The Women’s House of Detention tells the true story of a Greenwich Village prison that held women, transgender men, and gender non-conforming people for decades. Hugh Ryan reconstructs the history of the prison and its inmates, and tells the stories of the ones who suffer the most from injustice. He gives a voice to the ones who are so often pushed to the margins of society, especially People of Color and queer people. Ryan is truly the master of rebuilding queer history from scraps and pieces o The Women’s House of Detention tells the true story of a Greenwich Village prison that held women, transgender men, and gender non-conforming people for decades. Hugh Ryan reconstructs the history of the prison and its inmates, and tells the stories of the ones who suffer the most from injustice. He gives a voice to the ones who are so often pushed to the margins of society, especially People of Color and queer people. Ryan is truly the master of rebuilding queer history from scraps and pieces of information, and presenting them in a fascinating, thought-provoking way. I loved the way he connects different threads of history - The Black Panthers, Stonewall - and weaves them together with the almost forgotten ones - like the prison itself. I was also impressed with the case Ryan makes for abolition, and I felt it worked perfectly with this book. TLDR: The Women’s House of Detention is a brilliant glimpse at a piece of queer history that not many know about.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sara Broad

    "The Women's House of Detention" by Hugh Ryan is a nonfiction work about a prison in Greenwich Village that housed women until it was torn down in the 1970s. The book also covers the institutionalization of women in general, especially in New York State and the perceived threat of queer people within the prison system and society. It's really interesting to think about this major correctional institution that existed for decades and played a huge role in the make-up of an area that is in a neigh "The Women's House of Detention" by Hugh Ryan is a nonfiction work about a prison in Greenwich Village that housed women until it was torn down in the 1970s. The book also covers the institutionalization of women in general, especially in New York State and the perceived threat of queer people within the prison system and society. It's really interesting to think about this major correctional institution that existed for decades and played a huge role in the make-up of an area that is in a neighborhood that is now unaffordable to most. This book highlights both the strength of queer communities inside and outside of prison and the dehumanization of people deemed unfit for society. The author points out how the women arrested were used as entertainment for people visiting the area and the different ways that women were targeted for arrest based on who they were. As a heavy nonfiction reader, this book stands out for being the first of its kind on this topic, and it is a greatly expands one's knowledge of a lesser known area of mass incarceration in America.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sophie

    While mass incarceration in America has been a topic of discussion in social justice circles for decades, Hugh Ryan sheds a light on women’s prisons within the carceral system and the role they played in developing lesbian, transgender, and bisexual history. Detailing the history of the “Women’s House of D”, the book explores the lives of a tiny fraction of its inmates over the 40+ years of its operation, and how some of these women and trans men lived before and after their time in the prison. E While mass incarceration in America has been a topic of discussion in social justice circles for decades, Hugh Ryan sheds a light on women’s prisons within the carceral system and the role they played in developing lesbian, transgender, and bisexual history. Detailing the history of the “Women’s House of D”, the book explores the lives of a tiny fraction of its inmates over the 40+ years of its operation, and how some of these women and trans men lived before and after their time in the prison. Each story is fascinating in its own right and stitches together the lives of women across generations who were pioneers of queer life and inadvertently brought together through lengthy jail time for often petty or fabricated crimes. Highlighting the injustices women have faced throughout the 20th century for deviating from “moral society”, Ryan also shows how marginalized communities can bring about change by working together across social justice issues. An incredible book for deepening knowledge on queer history, feminist history, prison history and history of Greenwich Village.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Morgan

    In The Women’s House of Detention, Hugh Ryan dives into the history of a prison through the experiences of the women, transgender men, and gender-nonconforming people who were imprisoned there. This book is a must read for people who are interested in queer history and prison abolition. The clear amount of research put into this book is impressive and I can’t wait to pick up more of Hugh Ryan’s work. Thank you to NetGalley and Bold Type Books for the ARC.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I received this as a eGalley from NetGalley. Will automatically read anything Hugh Ryan writes because a) he does his fucking research and b) I always learn so much.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Taylor

    Hard to describe how important it is for everyone to read this!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nadia

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    Candice Daquin

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    Jay

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    Melissa Cheresnick

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    Rachel Friars

  16. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Law

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    Miriam

  18. 4 out of 5

    mys

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sasha Jones

  20. 5 out of 5

    Hannah Lewis

  21. 5 out of 5

    Teagan Ferraresi

  22. 4 out of 5

    Annie

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    Katie

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    Merricat Zimmerle

  25. 5 out of 5

    Finalgirl

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    Jules

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    E. V. Gross

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    CapesandCovers

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kendra

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    Christiana McClain

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    Broadsnark

  44. 4 out of 5

    Ben

  45. 4 out of 5

    Thebeagee

  46. 5 out of 5

    Il’ia

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