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.

NOTE: Hugh Ryan was an invited speaker at our 18th International Cather Seminar in New York, June 21-23, 2023 — The Women's House of Detention is also available as a paperback copy here.

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.

Bold Type Books: May 10, 2022 • Hardbound: 368 pages


About the Author

Hugh Ryan is a writer, historian, and curator in New York City. His most recent book, The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison, is a queer history of the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, the people it caged, the neighborhood it changed, and the resistance it inspired. It is the winner of the 2023 Stonewall Book Award/Israel Fishman Award for Nonfiction from the Publishing Triangle of the American Library Association, as well as the 2022 Warren Johansson Award from the W.A. Percy Foundation.


Some Reviews

“The building becomes a literary device, a vehicle for the recovered stories of its incarcerated as well as another affirmative point in the broader argument for prison abolition.” ―Vulture

“By using queer history as a framework, Ryan makes the case for prison abolition stronger than ever. Part history text, part call to activism, this book is compelling from start to finish.” ―Buzzfeed

“In this essential, abolitionist work, historian and author of When Brooklyn Was Queer Hugh Ryan uncovers the stories of this bewildering place and of the people who populated it.” ―Electric Literature

“Hugh Ryan’s crucial new book will change how you think about LGBTQ+ history…the most thorough collection of pre-Stonewall queer lives I’ve ever read.” ―The Advocate\

“Expertly mining prison records and other source materials, Ryan brings these marginalized women to vivid life. This informative, empathetic narrative is a vital contribution to LGBTQ history.” ―Publishers Weekly

“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

“Part history, part horror story, and part blistering critique of the country’s ‘criminal legal system’.” ―Kirkus Reviews

“While this book is ostensibly about the New York City Women’s House of Detention, Greenwich Village’s forgotten queer landmark, it is also about so much more. Ryan contextualizes the notorious prison in the realms of criminology, queer theory, women’s history, geography, and many other disciplines… This blend of queer history and social history is highly recommended.” ―Library Journal

“This is one of those books that you want to talk about with every single person after reading it. Hugh Ryan is a master historian and storyteller, and this book feels like his strongest work yet! The Women’s House of Detention spotlights a long forgotten, yet significant part of queer history…it not only explains and examines this piece of history, but compels us to never forget it again.” ―Literary Hub

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