The Women's House of Detention

A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison


By Hugh Ryan

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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 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.

Winner, 2023 Stonewall Book Award—Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Book Award
CrimeReads, Best True Crime Books of the Year


A Few Notes on Language

THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK I USE THE WORD QUEER IN A MATERIALIST, rather than identity-based, way to refer to the broad collection of people whose sexual and gender expressions were not normative in their time. Use of the word queer to refer to sexually nonnormative people goes back to the early nineteenth century, but most of the people I discuss in this book would not have used that word, in that way, for themselves. In that sense, it is an ahistoric term that is useful in this context.

Often, I use the phrase “women and transmasculine people.” Many of the folks in this book were presumed to be women and lived lives that were masculine of center, but I have no access to how they identified. I do not want to make them invisible, presume facts I do not know about them, or project my assumptions onto them. Some clearly identified as men, and I follow their lead. Overwhelmingly, however, the people I am writing about understood themselves as women, and I do not want to obscure that fact either.

For people whose stories I’ve drawn primarily or exclusively from private social work files, I use only their first name and last initial, as they never chose to make their stories public. For people who told their own stories, or whose stories I found largely through published documents, I introduce them using their full name, then default to just their last name. In both cases, this is a choice made out of respect.

I capitalize Black in the same way that I would capitalize an ethnicity such as Irish or Puerto Rican (although these categories can overlap), because part of the legacy of slavery in America has been an erasure and flattening of the vast ethnic diversity of the people we today call Black—a flattening that continues to this day. Black connotes a specific experience and history, and even those Black people who do not share that experience—for instance, recent Black migrants from other countries—have the presumptions of those experiences placed on them by virtue of living Black in America, and must deal with the material realities that accompany those presumptions. As this is not true in the same way for white or brown people, I do not capitalize those terms.

Finally, I primarily refer to the Women’s House of Detention as a prison, which is technically only a place where people are caged after they have been found guilty in our criminal legal system. Pretrial detention takes place in a jail. The House of D held both kinds of detained people.


Jay Toole Marks the Land

The success or failure of a revolution can almost always be gauged by the degree to which the status of women is altered in a radical, progressive direction.

—ANGELA DAVIS, If They Come in the Morning…

THE JEFFERSON MARKET GARDEN IN GREENWICH VILLAGE IS ONE OF the loveliest places I can’t stand. Flowering season seems to last longer there than the rest of the city. The low-rise nature of the surrounding buildings allows precious sun to warm the ground for Lenten roses in the first weeks of March, and keeps the garden inviting until the last camellias drop their petals in November. The only potential reminder of the spot’s one-hundred-fifty-year history as a prison is the high steel fence, which these days keeps the unwanted riffraff out rather than in.

I used to love this garden. I’d sit by the koi pond, do interviews on my cell phone, and think what a beautiful oasis it was—what a gift the Village had given the city. Now, I can’t look at it without hearing Jay Toole’s voice describing the brutal physicals that doctors had inflicted upon her there, when the garden was a prison called the Women’s House of Detention.

When I go into the garden, I’m always brought back to the one time—happened many, many times but this one stands out. He’s telling me to get on the table, and put my feet in the stirrups and this and that, and it felt like his whole arm went in there, you know, and they checked everywhere, every hole you have that’s where they went. Then he was like “All right, get off the table. Hurry up, we got to bring the next one in.”

“Hurry up?” And I couldn’t move, the pain was so bad and I don’t know what he did up in there but it was so, so bad. When I looked down I was covered in blood.

And they didn’t do nothing.1

Today, it’s hard to imagine that a prison once graced the rarified streets of Greenwich Village, one of New York City’s most picturesque (and unaffordable) neighborhoods. But for almost as long as there has been a Greenwich Village—which is to say, almost as long as there has been a United States—detention centers have been an integral part of Village life. The last of them, the Women’s House of Detention, stood from 1929 to 1974. It was one of the Village’s most famous landmarks: a meeting place for locals and a must-see site for adventurous tourists. And for tens of thousands of arrested women and transmasculine people from every corner of the city, the House of D was a nexus, drawing the threads of their lives together in its dark and fearsome cells.

Some were imprisoned there once, for as little as a day; others returned often and were held for years at a time. For decades, upon their release these women navigated the streets of Greenwich Village: ate in its automats and diners; caroused in the bars that would let them in; lived in nearby tenements; slept rough in the parks; visited friends and loved ones who were on trial or in detention; worked what jobs would hire them; attended court-mandated health screenings and probation meetings; and in a million and one other ways, made the Village their own. Now, aside from a small plaque on the garden’s fence, they have been almost entirely forgotten.


The slim few who have fought to preserve the memory of the House of D are mostly working-class lesbian/bisexual women and transmasculine folks—the people most likely to fall into its clutches, and least likely to have other landmarks to call their own.

Jay Toole first ended up in the orbit of the House of D when she was thirteen, in 1960. Some friends had given her the haircut every cool boy wanted: a tight-fade flattop, just like Steve McQueen and Mickey Mantle. That was the final straw for her father—a violent, sexually abusive man who ruled their Bronx home with his fists. That night, he threw her out, and Jay lived among the queer kids on the streets of the Village for the next twenty-five years. At the age when most of her peers started high school, Jay started heroin. In 1964, she stole a taxi to drive her girlfriend to California, but they only made it as far as Texas before they were caught, and Jay was sentenced to her first bid in the House of D.

“A lot of us called it the playground. A lot of us called it a prison. I called it both,” Jay told historians in 2016, “depend[ing] on what I was arrested for and how much I got.”2

For Jay, the prison was complicated: dangerous, vile, violent, dirty, cruel—but also a place where she met other queer people, and one of the centers of her queer community. She and other butches would hang out in the shadow of the prison, at Whalen’s drugstore on Sixth Avenue, where they could watch the tide of arrested women flow in and out of the prison’s high stone walls. Most of the people she met in prison are gone now, dead or disappeared. But Jay keeps their memories alive. Since the early 2000s, she’s organized tours of the West Village, to share the queer history of the House of D, because “young people don’t know about it.”3 The landmark is gone, but she marks the land, exposing the grim roots beneath the garden’s manicured paths.

And make no mistake: the House of D was a queer landmark. In truth, all prisons are, especially ones intended for women.

Today, approximately 40 percent of people incarcerated in women’s detention facilities are part of the broad LBTQ spectrum4 (compared to about 3.5 percent of the general population).5 That percentage is based on in-person interviews with over a hundred thousand currently detained people, and researchers only identified someone as a “sexual minority” if they themselves identified that way or if they had sexual relationships with people of the same sex before being incarcerated. We can only speculate how high the percentage would have been had the study counted those who could not talk openly about their sexual identities, or if it had included those who had same-sex sexual relationships while incarcerated.

We live in the age of mass incarceration. If we extrapolate these findings to the nearly 250,000 women currently incarcerated in America, at least 100,000 are queer.6 And that’s after decades of LGBTQ, feminist, anti-racist, and anti-prison activism, which have supposedly made our criminal legal system more fair. During the years the House of D was active, which spanned the single most homophobic period in American history, the percentage of queer people it encaged was almost certainly higher. How much higher, we’ll never know for sure. But records show that queer women and transmasculine people were sentenced to the House of D for such crimes as smoking, forgery, petit larceny, being homeless, attempting suicide, murder, wearing pants, sending the definition of the word lesbian through the mail, “associating with idle or vicious persons,” staying out late, accepting a ride from a man, vagrancy, alcoholism, prostitution, possession of narcotics, “waywardism,” disobedience, stealing rare books, being alone on the street, rape, drug addiction, and lesbianism itself. Yet the impacts of queer people on prison history, and the impacts of prisons on queer history, are rarely examined. Even when they are, the focus is mostly on men.

However, thanks to its age, size, and unique history as an early adopter of penal innovations, New York City “offers a unique perspective on how the rehabilitation of female criminal behavior developed as a distinct reform enterprise,” according to Cheryl Hicks, author of Talk with You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890–1935.7 Furthermore, over the course of the twentieth century, New York City went from having a 98 percent white population to a 44 percent white population. Major demographic shifts like the Great Migration, the immigration of Black people from the Caribbean, post–World War II anti-urban white flight, and the influx of Puerto Rican people due to the economic devastation of American colonial capitalism have had formative effects on our city—and our prisons, and the way we treat the people incarcerated in them. Thus, New York’s penal institutions for women offer unique insights into how racism, classism, xenophobia, and homophobia intertwined with misogyny to create public policy, and ruin human lives.

And the House of D, more than perhaps any other prison, had an outsized role in queer life. It sat at the end of Christopher Street, the block whose very name is a global byword for queerness. You could see the Stonewall Inn from the prison’s high, small windows, and during the Stonewall Uprising, those on the inside held a riot all their own, setting fire to their belongings and tossing them out the windows while screaming “gay rights, gay rights, gay rights!”8 Yet still in 2016, the New York Times would refer to the protest as being all gay men, and only grudgingly issue a correction stating there was “at least one lesbian involved.”9 Jay Toole, a Stonewall veteran herself, could have told them that—if only they had bothered to ask.

The House of D helped make Greenwich Village queer, and the Village, in return, helped define queerness for America. No other prison has played such a significant role in our history, particularly for working-class women and transmasculine people. For them, as pioneering historian Joan Nestle (founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives) once wrote, the House of D was a constant “presence in our lives—a warning, a beacon, a reminder and a moment of community.”10

Many—perhaps most—formerly incarcerated people talk rarely about their experiences, and many—perhaps most—non-incarcerated people refuse to listen when they do. At most, we get data about people in prison: aggregated statistics that reduce them down to fungible numbers, not human beings with specific thoughts and experiences. As Nicole Hahn Rafter wrote in the preface to Partial Justice: Women, Prisons, and Social Control, “Like others who have attempted to study prisoners of the past, I was constantly frustrated by lack of information on individual inmates.”11

In the thirty years since Rafter wrote her book, little has changed. In the introduction to a 2015 study of prisons in early America, Jen Manion wrote that “without diaries or letters written by the women themselves, I accepted that I would never really know what they thought, felt, or strived for,” and bemoaned “how incomplete our understanding of state authority has been without attention to the actions, thoughts, and experiences of those subjected to its reach.”12

The bulk of the work of this book has been to undo this silence, to find and follow the lives of imprisoned women and transmasculine people, and to allow revelations about the Women’s House of Detention, Greenwich Village, queer history, and prisons generally to arise from their lives, their ideas, their stories. This is the biography of a unique building, but the building only matters because of the people who passed through it. By reconstructing the experiences of hundreds of incarcerated New Yorkers, I’ve identified a representative few whose lives were particularly well-documented. They have acted as the Beatrices for my descent into what one prison social worker called the “hellhole” that was the House of D.13

When I began sketching out the idea for this book five years ago, I had a naive understanding that prisons were bad, and should be made better. I might even have described them as “broken.” But to look at prisons historically is to see a monstrously efficient system, doing exactly what it was designed to do: hide every social problem we refuse to deal with.

Prisons have very little to do with “justice” or “rehabilitation.” If they did, we would care about the 83 percent recidivism rate for people currently incarcerated in state prisons.14 Or we would be up in arms about the fact that two hundred thousand people are sexually assaulted while incarcerated every single year—and that’s not even counting those who are violated by the routine procedures of “health care” in prisons and jails, or those who never report being assaulted, out of fear or shame or simple recognition that the system does not care.15

If one in twelve people sentenced to prison were also sentenced to be raped for their “crimes,” we would call that barbaric. But when one in twelve people is sexually violated as collateral damage to their imprisonment, we call that justice.

As noted abolitionist, author, and community organizer Mariame Kaba writes in her brilliant book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us, calls for prison reform “ignore the reality that an institution grounded in the commodification of human beings, through torture and the deprivation of their liberty, cannot be made good.… Cages confine people, not the conditions that facilitated their harms or the mentalities that perpetuate violence.”16

Justice deals with root causes; punishment and confinement do not. For that reason, following the example of Kaba and other abolitionists, I use the phrase “criminal legal system” instead of “criminal justice system.”

Most people in detention are there because they are poor, Black, female, queer, gender nonconforming, brown, mentally ill, chemically addicted, indigenous, abandoned by their families and the state, or some combination of the above. Discussions of “crime” are a distraction from this reality. Many abolitionists thus differentiate “crime”—the violation of specific statutes, many of which are inherently unjust—from “harm,” a violation inflicted on a person by another person or by the state, which must be redressed for true justice to exist but which is often considered perfectly legal.

Criminal detention almost always leads to increased harm—for the person incarcerated, for those who depend on them, and for the communities they come from. The only twisted sense in which detention creates less harm is if we disregard the humanity of those incarcerated (and their communities) and focus solely on the incarcerated person’s potential to harm someone the system cares about: usually a white person of some means or a business.

Researching the House of D has shown me the consistency of this truth, over decades, through liberal moments and conservative ones: the prison system is irredeemable. These detention warehouses are stopgaps and pressure valves for every other system that actually is broken, from education to mental health care, and without fundamental change, any minor reform to the prison system is simply overwhelmed, over time, by that reality.

But through this research, I also began to see the connections between abolition and my hopes for the queer movement writ large. Abolition moves us away from a paradigm of “legal” versus “illegal,” and toward one of “harm” versus—what?

To me, the opposite of harm is care—the thing we owe one another, the thing we cannot live without, the thing the government should take a vested (and financial) interest in promoting. Yet we starve our systems of care while we feed the beast of incarceration. Our social safety net, from health care to the shelter system to welfare, is badly frayed, and our government has confused promoting a specific family type (heterosexual and nuclear) with promoting interpersonal care generally.

I had many criticisms of the movement for gay marriage, but at the most fundamental, my frustration was this: it accepted, unquestioningly, the idea that certain kinds of sexual relationships deserve to be rewarded. Yet the government has no fundamental interest in our sex lives. It does, however, have a vested interest in seeing that we are cared for. The uncared-for person ends up on the street, in the emergency room, in foster care, in asylums, in nursing homes, and, all too often, in prison. The uncared-for person costs the state time and money, one way or another.

Marriage law is a clumsy, limited solution to this problem: an attempt to promote relationships of care in hopes that this work will not end up on the state. Why unnecessarily limit it to pairs of people who like each other’s genitals? Why not extended families, why not friends, why not sexual relationships beyond monogamy?

A need for care connects so many parts of the broad queer agenda. What do children abandoned by their families need? Care. What do elders without descendants need? Care. What does the support to form a chosen family ensure? Care. What is access to medically safe, socially supported gender transition services? Care. What does the AIDS crisis show our government’s lack of? Care. What do LGBTQ immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers need? Care. Care. Care.

Because queerness is not a vertical identity, so long as our society sees personal care as something that should mainly come from the nuclear family, there will always be queer people in need of care.

In 1998, Jay Toole got sick—couldn’t walk for a while. Some friends on the street took Jay to a shelter, where she got sober and connected with a woman who brought her to the LGBT Center. At first she thought, “‘Fuck no. I’m not going to that place.’ I used to sleep outside of it in the front when it first opened and they chased me [off].”17

But she went, and at the meeting, they were talking about welfare, about substance use, about homelessness, and she kept thinking—that’s me, that’s me, that’s me. For once, they were talking about her. So she talked too:

I don’t know how but the microphone ended up in my hand? I got up and I started telling them what I thought they needed to do, coming from the shelter system, and that there’s so many of us in there and no one knows about it.

I haven’t fucking shut up yet.18

In 2002, recognizing the limitations in the liberal LGBTQ movement, that group became Queers for Economic Justice, an anti-poverty advocacy group with a queer lens. For the next twelve years, Toole was the director of their Shelter Project, which advocated for queer homeless people. Thanks to her work with QEJ, New York City allows shelter residents to self-determine whether they want to be placed in men’s or women’s facilities, and they recognize domestic partners on an equal plane with married couples.

Despite all that she has done on behalf of so many others, however, Toole’s own future is still insecure. “I would say I feel discouraged by what our community is not doing,” she told an interviewer in 2011. “I wonder what’s going to happen to me when I won’t be able to work or do anything.… Who will take care of us?”19

These are the questions abolition asks: Who is harmed, who is cared for, and where is the state putting its thumb on the scale?

The vast changes that our systems need cannot happen all at once, but every step we take must be in the direction of our ultimate goal of true liberation. As Huey P. Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party, once said,

I believe that reform must be integrated with revolution. Reforms are alright. Reforms are good! So long as they don’t put up an obstacle to your final revolutionary goal.… We must make very sure that our reforms are well thought out, and [that] we explain to the people on the way the significance, and also the dangers, of accepting certain compromises.20

I am not an organizer. I do not have the answers. But by looking closely at the history of the Women’s House of Detention, I can clearly see the development of our modern system of mass incarceration, how it has affected queer people and our communities, and just how little justice there is in it.

In writing this book, I have lost a garden—and gained a new vision for the world.



The Prehistory of the Women’s House of Detention (1796–1928)


On the night Mabel Hampton was arrested the weather was, in a word, “unsettled”: cloudy and warm, with winds that spent the whole day twisting back on themselves, flying up the long avenues of Manhattan from the southwest before doing a 180 to catch you from the north side too.1 It was July 5, 1924, on 123rd Street: the heat of summer, in the heart of Harlem, as the twenties roared—a moment of unimaginable potential for a young Black lesbian like Mabel Hampton, who could find friends, lovers, a job, or an all-Black party around any corner.

But it was a moment of great danger as well. Before the night was over, the state would steal the next three years of her life.

From the police file of Mabel Hampton: “A small rather bright and good looking colored girl. 21 years old but appears to be younger. Has bushy black hair, is slim but not lacking in nourishment. Dark brown eyes. Friendly. Alert. Composed. Pleasant voice and manner of speaking.”2

In actuality, Hampton had just turned twenty-two a few months before her arrest. How do we know this? Because Hampton had the (rare) opportunity to record her side of the story.

In many ways, Hampton’s life was typical for working-class women of her day. Like most of her contemporaries, she entered the historical record the moment she was arrested, throwing her into a diffuse network of police, jails, courts, prisons, hospitals, reformatories, and social service organizations, all of which kept copious files. Unfortunately, many of our oldest and most extensive records of queer history come from our carceral system, and they are some of our most homophobic and ignorant ones as well. While they provide data


  • “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
  • “[A] thoroughly researched archival treasure.”—them.
  • “In his deeply researched and illuminating book, Ryan tells the history of the prison not only through personal stories but also the social and political shifts during the 20th century.”—CrimeReads
  • “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
  • “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
  • "Hugh Ryan is one of the most important historians of American life working today. The Women's House of Detention resets so many assumptions about American history, reminding us that the home of the free has always been predicated on the imprisonment of the vulnerable. Of vital importance to those interested in criminal justice reform, prison abolition, gender history, the history of sexuality and the history of poverty, as well as anyone who declares themselves knowledgeable about New York City history, this account does what history is supposed to—looking to the past to understand our broken present and possibly help us plan for a better future."—Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of Libertie
  • “Part history, part horror story, and part blistering critique of the country’s ‘criminal legal system’.”—Kirkus Reviews
  • “Ryan has created a valuable new lens for queer and carceral history.”—Booklist
  • “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
  • “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
  • "Ryan dives into the archives created by those incarcerated in the House of D and the people who put them there, giving us the gift of rich context for these stories and countless hidden queer histories. Placing the prison in a quintessential queer community, The Women's House of Detention illuminates prisons as queer spaces and queer resistance through acts of autonomy, care, and collectivity, offering queer abolitionist organizers working to close jails and prisons across the country a glimpse into the long legacy they are living—and the inspiration to keep fighting until there are no more houses of detention."—Andrea Ritchie, co-author of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States
  • “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
  • “[A] fascinating book written with style and passion and deserves the widest possible readership.”—New York Journal of Books
  • “A can’t-put-down exploration of a link between prison abolition and queer liberation.”—The Stranger
  • “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.”—LitHub
  • “Ryan brings this queer carceral history to life, illuminating not only the lives that might otherwise have been lost to us, but also a simultaneous vision of the horrific nature of our criminal justice system and an empowering story of queer survival and community that is urgent at a time when our country and culture appear poised to crush the rights people of color, women, and queers have struggled for centuries to ensure.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
  • “I was shocked to not be familiar with this institution that is so deeply tied to queer persecution and liberation in New York City. It was eye-opening, and rage-inducing, and I'm so glad I got to read it.”—Ashley C. Ford
  • “Hugh’s book is proof you can raze a prison, but you cannot erase the voices of its people.”—BOMB Magazine
  • “[A]n abolitionist read that uncovers dark truths behind bars and walls.”—Bookstr
  • “This text — either in its entirety or as individual chapters — would enrich any queer or feminist course.”—RGWS: A Feminist Review

On Sale
May 10, 2022
Page Count
368 pages
Bold Type Books

Hugh Ryan

About the Author

Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator. His first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, won a 2020 New York City Book Award, was a New York Times Editors' Choice in 2019, and was a finalist for the Randy Shilts and Lambda Literary Awards. He was honored with the 2020 Allan Berube Prize from the American Historical Association. In 2019-2021, he worked on the Hidden Voices: LGBTQ+ Stories in U.S. History curricular materials for the NYC Department of Education.


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