Hugh Ryan’s new social history, The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison, is one of the most important books published this year. Equal parts true crime, queer artifact, American history, and societal critique, The Women’s House of Detention (Bold Type Books 2022) is a must-read.
Ryan’s book details the history of The Women’s House of Detention—or the Women’s House of D, as its colloquially known—a women’s prison built in 1920s Greenwich Village, New York City. From 1929 to 1974, the WHD was at the center of women’s incarceration in the city, and over the course of its almost fifty-year tenure, tens of thousands of queer, transmasculine, and gender-nonconforming people were confined in its cramped and poorly maintained cells. Throughout his expansive and thoroughly researched text, Ryan explores the history of the WHD, and as a consequence also investigates the history of incarceration in the United States, the ways in which queer, poor, and racialized bodies are policed and regulated in billion-dollar prison systems, and how one women’s prison situated in what is now the seat of wealth and privilege in New York City exemplifies it all.
The research in this text is impeccable and demonstrates a clear understanding of the essential work of an historian in drawing together thousands of different threads in order to create a clear picture. This book’s careful work reminded me a great deal of Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain (2021) in its unveiling of a history of twentieth-century New York City that has global repercussions. Through the queer history of one prison, Ryan traces the effect that national and global political shifts had on incarcerated women and transmasculine people. Chapters on the rise of pharmaceuticals in the mid-twentieth century, World War II, the war on drugs, and the Stonewall Riots alongside gay and black liberation are all read through the archived experiences of individuals at the WHD. This narrative choice presents these historical events in full colour and clarifies who suffered as a result of these social changes.
The impression I had while reading this text was that it is a book that is vitally necessary to both examine where we’ve been and where we are going. Throughout The Women’s House of Detention, Ryan uses his work to focus closely on the conditions, circumstances, and fates of individual inmates from across the twentieth century at the same time that those stories speak to a culture of marginalization and exclusion exacerbated by the prison system (to say nothing of the abuse and neglect in the prisons themselves). Ryan’s book unmistakably indicts the prison system for its capitalistic, racist, and homophobic foundations that continue to inform the business—which is the only name for it—of incarceration today. And perhaps this is what makes Ryan’s book so poignant: his analyses are easily and carefully applied to similar or unchanged circumstances for incarcerated bodies in the twenty-first century, especially in relation to people of colour and queer people.
However, there is a great deal of nuance in The Women’s House of Detention. Although the WHD was a poorly maintained, over-crowded, under-funded, and neglected institution, it was also a hub of queer life. Ryan points out that the WHD is an important landmark in lesbian and queer history and should be remembered as such, despite the fact that it no longer stands in Greenwich Village. While the stories he recounts are tragic, they are also a queer record. Furthermore, I was stunned to learn that influential figures in queer, black, and feminist rights moments were incarcerated in the Women’s House of D, and it permanently changed how they thought about the world and their place in it. Famous women such as Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, Afeni Shakur, were held for various reasons and lengths of time, and each emerged from the prison changed, and their traumas and experiences went on to influence them later in life. Ryan’s inclusion of both famous and unknown stories of women illustrates just how integral the WHD was to the fabric of the prison system in the twentieth century, but also how central it was to queer life and history.
I could not have been more compelled by this book’s careful exploration of queer and American history. It truly is one of the most important and necessary books published this year and reflects an ongoing need to shine a spotlight on carceral systems in the US and around the world.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.