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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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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