Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. The Jefferson Market Garden graces a block in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. At this time of year, the roses and rhododendrons are at peak bloom. Butterflies and hummingbirds flock to the bright wildflowers and a lush canopy of yellowwood trees gives dappled shade overhead. Historian Hugh Ryan can't stand to spend time in this garden. He explains that the piece he once found at this site has been forever disrupted by the stories he now knows of what happened here when on this site stood the Women's House of Detention.
The House of D as it came to be known, stood from 1929 to 1974 and nearly every one of the tens of thousands confined there was poor or Black or queer or a person living at multiple intersections of those identities. The crimes for which some were arrested included smoking, being homeless, alcoholism, being alone on the street, wearing pants were simply being lesbian.
As they fought to survive, the state-sponsored brutality of the House of D. These queer folk crafted communities of transgressive resistance. Those incarcerated the House of D during the Stonewall rebellion of 1969 even played a role from inside the walls. Arcus Flynn, a quer activist who grew up in New York City, shared this recollection with the Pratt Institute School of Information, Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Arcus Flynn: I saw all these tiny little fires coming out of the Women's House of Detention. They had lit cigarette boxes and cellophane from the cigarette packs and match hooks. They had dropped them out through the bars in the window and they could see right into Christopher Street where the riots were happening. Then I stopped the car and parked and tried to listen to what the women were saying. They were screaming, "Gay rights, gay rights, gay rights." It was really incredible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I spoke with Hugh Ryan, author of the The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison, a new book about the prison and its role in LGBTQ history.
Hugh Ryan: The carceral system has targeted queer people for generations in ways we're familiar with like arrests for solicitation or dressing in drag and in ways that we're less familiar with such as the way in which women's incarceration really focused on proper femininity. Many women in the 20th century were arrested for things like wearing pants or being out at night or being disobedient to their parents. All things that meant that queer women and trans men were much more likely to be caught up by the police than their straight counterparts.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. I want to pause on that for a moment because I think it's critical to understand that so many of the people who are confined in this House of Detention are therefore what we might call status offenses. I think this is important for folks to understand around criminalization. Say a bit more about that.
Hugh Ryan: Most of the people who are arrested in the 20th century and put into women's prisons are therefore what are called crimes against the public order. These are things that in the 19th century, or if they were straight white men, they likely would never have been arrested for and certainly wouldn't have served time for. Waywardism, disobedience, public drunkenness, disorderliness, all of these were crimes that focused on your social behavior and whether you were the right woman in the right neighborhood at the right time. They're not the things men were arrested for, which were crimes against people or crimes against property.
Things like arson and robbery. The whole point of women's incarceration as it really develops in America in the late 19th century is to turn out proper feminine subjects because the prison system believed that there were really only two ways for women to escape poverty: they could either be maids or they could be wives. Either way, they needed to be properly feminine in order to have jobs. Otherwise, they were going to end up as wards of the state and likely as sex workers. At least that's what our prison system believed. Prisons focused on arresting all kinds of people for things that were negligent or not crimes at all.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me about Charlotte and Virginia.
Hugh Ryan: Charlotte and Virginia are two of my favorite people in the book. In fact, there's some of the first queer history records that I came across while doing this research. They were a pair of lovers who met in the Women's House of Detention in the prison in the mid-30s. Charlotte was a butch runaway who was about 19 years old when they met. She had been arrested for waywardism. Virginia was a main farm girl who had moved to New York at the age of 14 to become a taxi dancer for the mob. She was kind of a femme fatale.
She had been arrested for murder as part of a robbery plot gone wrong. The two of them met in the Women's House of Detention, came up with a plan to try and escape. When that was foiled, spent two years remaining in touch while Virginia went through her trial and was incarcerated. This really provoked a moment for Charlotte to start to understand who she was. She had been told by the court system when she was arrested that she was a homosexual, but she didn't know what that word meant. She understood that she loved women and that women loved her.
Before the court system told her she was a homosexual, she said, ''It wasn't my fault that women looked up to me the way they would a good-looking football hero.'' After she met Virginia and the two of them fell in love, she talked about it a bunch with a psychologist, which was provided again through the House of Detention, and came out to many people and found a life for herself as a gay woman in the 40s and 50s and 60s, though she and Virginia didn't stay together that long, unfortunately.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maybe a bit about Louise.
Hugh Ryan: Louise is another really fun one. Louise was a Brooklyn teenager, a prodigiously intelligent, young, black woman in the 30s whose father had been a music composer. I promised that he would one day take her to Paris. Unfortunately, her father died before he was ever able to take her away. She lived with her mother in Brooklyn and was eventually arrested for stealing rare books, which she planned to sell to make some money to help further her acting career with her girlfriend.
They were young women 15, 16, 17, who were incarcerated over and over again, both in prisons and in mental institutions. Louise used the time in prison to her advantage. She practiced all the different languages that she spoke with anyone she could find any immigrants, Italian, French, or German. When she got out of prison, she got a job working for the war effort and managed to scrape together enough money to actually take herself to Paris. The last record I can find of Louise is her sailing for the [unintelligible 00:07:16] France. Underneath the column for length of stay, she simply wrote, "Indefinite."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's go inside the prison a bit. What were conditions like?
Hugh Ryan: The conditions in the prison were pretty brutal from the very day that it opened. It was originally intended as just a place where women would be held pretrial or during trial, so at jail. Jails are intended to have people in them for short periods of time, and therefore, they don't have a lot of services. By the time the prison opened, it was envisioned in the 1920s during the roaring 20s and it opened in the great depression. By the time it opened, it was filled with both people who had been sentenced and people awaiting trial who needed vastly different things.
There was supposed to be a very large hospital, but that was cut down to just 20-something beds to service every woman in the prison, which at times was upward of 800 people in a building built for 400. Sometimes, two and three people were forced to share a room for one person. The blankets weren't changed for months at a time. There were vermin, mice, rats, cockroaches, reports of mouse poop in the food, abandoned surgical areas that looked like no one had been in them in a decade, and brutal invasive physicals.
That's, in fact, one thing that every single person who passed through the prison talked about the pelvic exams, the searches for contraband, which never actually found any contraband, and the other internal exams, which were occasionally so brutal that people were left scarred for the rest of their lives. The experience of the prison is one that almost doesn't change over the course of its existing.
In fact, one of the things I really realized in doing this research is that liberal moments, conservative moments, times of reform almost have no effect on the internal life of prisons. At best, they provide money to build more cages, which are then abandoned when public interest leaves. The Women's House of Detention went through waves of reform that really didn't do anything.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I feel like I want to emphasize again the kinds of so-called crimes that people were arrested for that subjected them to these kinds of brutal conditions. I mean, the idea that this was about having worn pants or smoking or even for attempting to take one's own life, that you could be jailed and subjected to this what sounds to me like at least torturous, if not defined as torture.
Hugh Ryan: Absolutely. These weren't crimes, they were existence that had been criminalized when done by certain kinds of people: women, trans men, poor women, Black women, especially. They're not crimes, just like prisons aren't really about criminal justice. That's one of the biggest things that I learned in researching this book. What we see over and over again is that prisons aren't about rehabilitation. They're not about justice. They're about compensating for every broken system of care that we refuse to put money into. Prisons are a way of storing people who need mental healthcare or physical healthcare.
People who need housing, people who need addiction services. Prisons over and over again are about social control of women and people of color. You look at the House of Detention and you see this so clearly. Most of the people arrested and incarcerated in the House of D, at least in the early years, are there for charges related to prostitution. We actually even have codified in the law at that time, that prostitution isn't about the exchange of sex for money, it's merely the common rudeness of women. The reason these women were being arrested had nothing to do with their own behavior, but rather that they were seen as a potential venereal disease threat to men.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to shift a little bit now because part of the extraordinary stories that you tell and that you recover for us in this book, it's not only about the kind of horror or outrage that we should feel about what happened there. It's also the transformative capacity of those who were confined there, who turned at least parts of this space into an active, fertile ground for resistance. Can you talk about that?
Hugh Ryan: Absolutely. The women and trans men in the prison resisted from day one. One of the ways that they resisted was by organizing with each other, particularly in the really homophobic periods in American history, the 1950s, the early 1960s, at a time when the police were shutting down gay bars, arresting people on the streets, and raiding private residences. The prison was a space for queer women and trans men that could not be shut down by the government because they were bringing people there.
Women in the prison rioted in the 50s and in the 60s. During the Stonewall rebellion, they set fire to their belongings and threw them out the windows chanting, "Gay rights, gay rights, gay rights." They could see the Stonewall in from the windows of their cells. They were just 500 feet away. They were as much a part of the Stonewall uprising as the veterans that we remember and talk about, but they're just outside the frame of what we can see. When we shift that camera just a tiny bit, it shows us so much more.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk about what we can learn from this prison about our contemporary moment?
Hugh Ryan: It's one of the things that really surprises people the most when I tell them about this history. People say to me, "Oh, I'm used to thinking about gay men being arrested and gay male sexuality being illegal." They've never really thought about it in terms of women and trans men, or they'll say things like, "But it's not as bad for women as it is for men." They're shocked to discover that today, about 40% of people incarcerated in women's prisons identify as somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. 40%.
It's a crisis of incarceration that we never talk about and it's not just of adults. When you look at children's detention centers, again, we see it 40% of youth in detention identify as queer women or trans men. 40%. This tells me that while we may not be paying quite the same attention to what is happening to queer women and trans men, they are being targeted by the state at incredibly high levels. Often, just as it did previously, it's not happening under laws that say you are arrested for being a lesbian. It's a criminalized existence that step by step leads them to be more in danger for policing.
They're young women who are disobedient to their parents because their parents are homophobic, which leads them into the school-to-prison pipeline. They're truant and they're arrested for waywardism or disobedience. They can't make a lot of money now because they've got a record that follows them and they can't have certain kinds of jobs and they can't have certain kinds of licenses. In all these ways, we force these queer women and trans men into criminalized existences, and then incarcerate them, and then never talk about it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hugh Ryan is the author of The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison. Hugh, thank you so much for your time.
Hugh Ryan: Melissa, thank you for having me. This was wonderful.
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