In her fine new book about those horrors, Damnation Island, Stacy Horn lucidly, and not without indignation, documents the island’s bleak history, detailing the political and moral failures that sustained this hell, failures still evident today in the prison at Rikers Island.
Stacy Horn takes us, institution by institution, on a tour of that hell. She begins, with what by far is the most gripping and informative section of the book, at the northeast end with the Lunatic Asylum ... This brilliantly-realized exposé of the Asylum, however, Horn never quite achieves in her exposés of the Island’s other institutions. Her tour of the island, it becomes clear, is a selective one, selective both by choice and by necessity ... More than this, Horn, it seems, is hampered by the lack of evidence of the everyday cruelties in many of the institutions ... In Damnation Island, therefore, Stacy Horn has given us the short tour of the Island. But what we learn is enthralling; it is well worth the trip.
...a searing account of good intentions gone awry ... Horn offers no solutions; she is a storyteller, and a good one. The problem is that her often riveting account rarely connects Blackwell’s to the outside world. There is little about the waves of immigration that transformed New York City, or the professionalization of its police force, or the advances in medicine and public health during a century of revolutionary change. As such, we never quite get off the island.
...reads like something out of a horror novel, and it’s certainly a book you should consider if you’re a history buff ... Unfortunately, Horn’s writing style can be choppy and distracts from what should be a compelling narrative ... it’s clear Horn has done extensive research that enriches her book immensely. Many of her chapters include minute details that a less-conscientious writer might have dismissed as unimportant ... The less plot-driven parts of the book also feel cobbled together. Horn combines different types of narratives seemingly at random ... invaluable insight into how such tales of history’s dark periods can inform our present and future decisions.
Having reviewed a seemingly endless array of archival materials, Horn brings this subject to light in stunning detail. Readers will instantly see how this history continues to haunt us, as the boundaries between the four classes of people on the island (the poor, the mad, the sick and the criminal) are, in the public imagination, as blurred as ever.
Horn draws on reports from the era’s clergy, undercover journalists, and government reformers to tell stories of unnecessary cruelty ... This is an essential—and heartbreaking—book for readers seeking to better understand contemporary public policy.
...a vivid and at times horrifying portrait of Blackwell’s Island ... The anecdotal rather than linear narrative approach captures the drama of the island’s inmates, but can make understanding the chronology challenging. Horn has created a bleak but worthwhile depiction of institutional failure.