The Women’s House of Detention

Cover of The Women's Hose of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison by Hugh Ryan. It depicts colorful outlies of two female figures against gray and black prison cell bars.

How did a notorious women’s prison shape queer culture in New York City and beyond?

The Women’s House of Detention, a fortress-like 11-story tower, loomed over Greenwich Village for more than forty years, from 1932 to 1974. Tens of thousands of people were incarcerated there for serious crimes, as well as for offenses such as “wearing pants,” “waywardism,” and “lesbianism.” Though intended to be a facility for short-term pretrial or pre-sentencing detention, many inmates were held for months or even years, eventually becoming a focal point of the nascent queer community in Greenwich Village.

Hugh Ryan’s immersive study, The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison looks at this institution through the lives and words of the people imprisoned there, amplifying the voices of the queer community within. Ryan shows how the Women’s House of Detention and Greenwich Village became the epicenter of queer life in NYC through an analysis of popular culture, tabloid stories, and news reports about its inmates. Ryan’s work illuminates how homophobic and transphobic policing led to the imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals while celebrating the community forged through resistance to these injustices.

On March 2, Author Hugh Ryan and OHNY Board Vice President Saundra Thomas held a conversation at the Jefferson Market Library, directly adjacent to the former site of the Women’s House of Detention, about the historical research behind this powerful work and how this forgotten landmark shaped contemporary society.

“In this portrait of one prison’s life we can see the nation we have become and why.” – Joan Nestle, author and founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives

Purchase The Women’s House of Detention here.

Hugh Ryan is a writer, historian, and curator in New York City. 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. He regularly teaches Creative Nonfiction in the MFA program at SUNY Stonybrook.

OHNY Stacks is a series of book talks exploring the unknown, the unseen, and the unnoticed. Join us on Thursday evenings with authors of highly acclaimed books critical to understanding the past, present, and future of New York—as well as national trends or global issues that influence the shape, structure, and experience of cities and urban life today.

Jefferson Market Library
425 6th Avenue
New York, NY 10011