The Women's House of Detention
A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison
Winner, 2023 Stonewall Book Award—Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Book Award
CrimeReads, Best True Crime Books of the Year
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.
“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 also been overrepresented in prisons. Using records documenting poor, white, Black, and Latina women incarcerated for criminalized lives, Ryan shows us the profound injustices of prisons themselves, and how lesbians have been demeaned and yet tried to survive. A game changer from a community-based historian.”—Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993
“A fascinating, lively, and devastating story reverberates in the pages of The Women’s House of Detention. Hugh Ryan reveals the vital realities of people confined to the margins, whether behind the walls of the notorious House of D in the heart of the Village in Manhattan, or at the edges of complex communities in the tumult of twentieth-century New York City. Ryan’s engrossing and rigorous history of one jail documents an intersection of gender politics, evolving queer identity, and brutal racial repression, and is essential reading in a nation that now incarcerates 30 percent of the world’s women prisoners.”—Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
“A rigorously researched and compellingly told piece of queer history that features a memorable cast of heroic characters. Ryan squarely places his subject in the context of our contemporary society to illustrate the ugly and longstanding enactment of homo/transphobic terrorism by the carceral state.”—Melissa Febos, author of Girlhood and Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative
“Hugh Ryan has gifted us with a magnificent queer history of the notorious Women’s House of Detention in New York’s Greenwich Village that spans almost fifty years. With an astonishing gift for digging into archives, using their own letters and voices as much as he can, Ryan illuminates those whose lives were deemed ‘irredeemable.’ Stories that resonate with the humanity, resourcefulness, and loving of imprisoned Black, Puerto Rican, and working-class women are combined with those of political prisoners like Claudia Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, Afeni Shakur, and Joan Bird. This meticulous work shines like a lighthouse beacon on a fog-shrouded shore. A brilliant achievement.”—Bettina Aptheker, distinguished professor emerita of feminist studies, University of California, Santa Cruz
“In the 1950s and 1960s, I lived my femme lesbian life in the shadow of the Women’s House of D. In the bar that was home to me, parties were held to greet released lovers or to mourn new incarcerations. The Women’s House of Detention was the horizon of my early lesbian queer life; I have carried the voices of the separated lovers I heard in those hot summer streets all my years. In 1971, the building was erased from its Village corner, but Hugh Ryan refuses that erasure. These pages are thick with women and transmasculine people stepping back into our communal history, our national history. In this portrait of one prison’s life we can see the nation we have become and why, where mass incarcerations of Black, Brown, and poor people have taken genocidal proportions. Ryan uses new archival sources to emphasize the prison’s role in punishing nonconforming expressions of gender and love. Read this and you too will hear the lost voices reminding us both of their vitality, and of the work that still must be done. A needed, needed history.”—Joan Nestle, author and founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives