This book spares no punches, diving straight into the chaos that was the Women’s House of Detention in NYC’s Greenwich Village, aka The Hellhole in the 60s and 70s. First-person narratives and choice juicy details make the lives of the women come alive, from their annual fashion show to their cellblock politics and pink-painted bars. All too often, dispatches like this lack color and clarity, but this unfiltered take is far more gripping, and avoids stereotypes. We meet a wide range of people, scarred sex workers who refuse plastic surgery as “it’s too late for them,” pregnant teens who dreamt of hair salon careers, and substance abusers who cycled in and out, multiple times.
Despite being forced to live in rat-infested slum-like conditions, with shoddy medical care, many of the women remained spirited, even upbeat. But their continued struggle to maintain their sense of identity and femininity, despite minimal resources, is all too easy to relate to. Throwaway comments about how, even imprisoned, they’re expected to maintain a certain level of grooming and makeup show how pervasive sexists and cultural norms about appearance can be, even when locked within the justice system.