A well-reconstructed history of one of America’s worst prisons for women.



The neglected story of the “Skyscraper Alcatraz,” a notorious women’s prison where inmates included Angela Davis and Ethel Rosenberg.

As Ryan, the author of When Brooklyn Was Queer, demonstrates, for much of the 20th century, Greenwich Village was “the epicenter of women’s incarceration in New York, and the epicenter of queer life in America.” The author examines how the two realities intersected and rippled outward in an impressively researched study of the Women’s House of Detention. Ryan’s narrative is part history, part horror story, and part blistering critique of the country’s “criminal legal system” (a term he sees as more accurate than “criminal justice system”). Dubbed the House of D, the prison operated from 1929 until the early 1970s and was demolished after riots by inmates helped to expose its dangerously overcrowded and inhumane conditions. Although intended for short-term female prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing, the 11-story, vermin-infested building held “women and transmasculine people” for months or even years, crammed into small cells with no recreational, educational, or vocational programs and woeful medical care: “The dentist had so little time per prisoner that all he did, regardless of the complaint, was pull teeth,” writes Ryan. “There was no gynecologist, or any doctor at all on premises most nights and weekends.” The staff subjected new arrivals to forced enemas and other invasive procedures, overdrugged inmates with Thorazine, and for a time forced gender-nonconforming prisoners to wear a D for degenerate on their uniforms. In reconstructing this chilling history, Ryan had rare access to private social work files that enabled him to tell detailed personal stories of prisoners, who could be sent to the House of D for crimes such as “waywardism,” “wearing pants,” and “lesbianism itself.” While his narrative has strong LGBTQ+ interest, it also belongs on the shelf with books about judicial-system failures, such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

A well-reconstructed history of one of America’s worst prisons for women.

Pub Date: May 10, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-64503-666-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Bold Type Books

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2022

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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