My Experience in the Schuyler County Jail
by Jimmy Betts (in conversation with Sandra Steingraber)
Jimmy Betts, age 30, of Omaha, Nebraska, walked across the nation as part of the Great March for Climate Action. He joined We Are Seneca Lake in a blockade at Crestwood’s gates on November 17, 2014 and was incarcerated December 3-11.
What surprised you the most about being in jail for a week?
This experience was far more liberating for me than I expected. Having recently finished the Great March across the country, I had a lot to process. The rigors and ‘confinement’ of organizing the climate march—and being saddled with certain unexpected burdens during the march—were not fully realized until I was incarcerated.
In fact, I found that I was able to better cultivate a number of personal faculties, emotional acknowledgments, appreciations of the privileges of jail that exist, and simply mourn the trauma of the past year. In jail, I was able to experience more meaningful sleep, meditative practice, fitness, reading, writing, and breathing without the stifling scorn, self-serving judgments, and unreasonable demands of an oppressive system of entitlement.
Oddly, physical confinement was more conducive to freedom than a nomadic climate movement.
What helped make your participation on the blockade line and in jail a meaningful experience for you?
Proper planning by the steering committee and all the mobilized Seneca Lake Defenders played a big part, as did the campaign’s reinforced messaging, which focuses on local needs as well as global imperatives. There is space for collaborative experiential learning in the movement (from what I have seen).
The insights gathered from within myself AND from within the jail system itself are invaluable, and I recommend this experience to everyone. Going to jail is not something to be feared, nor is it meant only be an impressive spectacle, but should be a well-implemented tool for ecological change alongside many other tactics.
How did you spend your time?
Total: 176 hours.
40% sleeping; 30% meditating/cultivating; 25% reading; 5% writing: 0.000001% eating
Here’s what I read:
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (1973)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Isaac Bashevis Singer, A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories (1970)
Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
It’s not a guarantee that books brought in by an inmate’s friend or family member will be issued to the inmate. I did not receive the books that a friend delivered to me, but they were stored with my personal possessions and provided to me on my release.
The jail library is very simple, and it might be worth looking into how WASL and supporters might supplement the library with donated books, etc.
One thing to note here—as my reading choices made clear to me—we live in a privileged time in human history. Though we may experience bouts of justice-injustice, torture, and the like, we have yet to see the massive, full-scale “interrogations” of the Russian revolutionary periods, which sentenced more people to death than the Holocaust. As bad as we may think we have it here, there needs to be an appreciation lodged next to our judgments of the prison-industrial complex as well. The fact that we can schedule our own incarcerations (to some extent) and have strategic influence in this way sometimes seems like one of our last toeholds of popular control.
What about mail?
I did not SEND any mailed correspondence, mainly due to the short duration of my stay. However, I did write about two-dozen pages-worth of musings, and I did receive many pieces of mail. The officers on duty delivering mail kindly gave me a minute or so to copy down all of the return addresses on the twenty or so envelopes of correspondence that I received. Inmates are not allowed to keep the envelopes themselves.
The mail I received was from friends, parents, marchers, WASL’ers (I’m pronouncing this “wassailers” as their incoming letters seemed like receiving a volley of inspiration and festive activist support in my iron and concrete cage), and unexpected sources. I even received a letter from someone else who had been inside the courtroom on the night of my sentencing and who recounted for me the arraignment proceedings that I had missed because I was the first defendant of the night to be taken into custody and extracted from the courtroom.
Supporters of future inmates should know that there is a cut-off date in terms of sending mail to inmates. For inmates in jail for a week, letters should be sent on the first day of their incarceration. At least two pieces of mail sent to me arrived after I was released; they were returned to sender.
Did you have a TB test?
I was not given a TB test, but I was brought in and questioned by the jail nurse for all of five minutes. I remained in lockdown/keep-lock/classification until Saturday afternoon. After that, I was allowed to leave my cell during the day and spend time in the common area of my cellblock.
Tell us about showers and hygiene in jail.
It is recommended to shower daily (7 AM or shortly thereafter) out of respect for your fellow cellmates. You are expected to change underclothes daily if possible. There is a laundry collection and laundry bags that the officers or trustees clean for you. You are allowed TWO sets of inmate clothing (orange pants and orange scrub top). I did not know this and was only given one in the beginning. Based on your own awareness, and possibly requesting feedback from others locked up with you, you can chose your hygiene routine.
Men are issued Bob Barker Maximum Security Deodorant. The ingredients did not seem as insidious as many found on the open market. It’s not an anti-perspirant, so it contains no aluminum. It does contain propylene glycol, triclosan, from what I recall, but I did not notice any parabens. The toothpaste contains fluoride. I did notice myself brushing my teeth more often than usual, possibly out of boredom, but also because fasting tends to generate some mouth fuzz build-up throughout the day.
Did you get any exercise?
Walking, push-ups, bodyweight exercises, qigong, standing meditation, yoga, tai chi, etc were all acceptable and doable from within my jail cell. I found pull-ups difficult without having a comfortable hanging handhold in the cellblock, but doable with the use of a towel to buffer the hands.
I only attended one of the group recreation opportunities and opted out of two due to low energy level. Also, enjoying the empty, quiet, TV-free cellblock was a thing of simple majesty.
The We Are Seneca Lake campaign is determined to make sure all our incarcerated Defenders have visitors.
It was a great break to have a visitor on Sunday and Wednesday! Note that there are only TWO visitations per week, total, and visits can have multiple (I believe up to three) visitors.
What were the other inmates like?
They were particularly helpful, even if they had some strong feelings regarding the “jobs issue” and “protesters” impinging on the “advancement of progress through corporate efforts.” One of the inmates was a pipe-layer for the natural gas industry in years previous.
One of my largest oscillations, personally, was feeling both compassion and empathy for another confined human being but also realizing in many cases, these inmates had been inadvertently caught for breaking laws in ways that were related to drugs, money, and not strategic, publicly announced, world-changing motives. There were times where I had to simply listen and be present for the “coming to terms” processing that was being laid before me from my cellblock-mates.
This said, I am glad I did not observe silence while in jail. For future silence-holders, good messaging and the proper alerting of prison staff both in written and verbal confirmation is paramount.
As for personal security, it’s pretty basic. Do not touch the guards. EVER. It seemed acceptable to shake hands, hug, and make reasonable physical contact with other inmates. You must stay out of other inmates’ cells altogether.
You chose to fast while in jail. Tell us about that decision and about the food.
All meals contained some form of fruit, vegetable/starch. All lunches and dinners contained meat. I did not request a vegetarian option, though I would recommend this in the future for fasters.
From my experience as a faster with long-term experience, medical assessment abilities, and cultivation practice (meditation and physical transformation, etc.), I will say that I did succumb to the needs of my body once.
The following reasons precipitated this conscious decision to break my fast with a single banana:
1) Cold temperatures in my cell and officers withholding my clothing. I had no underwear, socks, shirt, or sweatshirt for the first four days. Without any food incoming or hot water to drink, my thermal regulation capabilities were overly taxed for these first four days. Additionally, the guards opened up the windows to air out the entire floor of odors.
2) Poor electrolyte preparation by me. I knew better. Simply having a few days with better hydration, a more fortifying balanced diet, and possibly even preceding the jail time with a simple cleanse, would have been ideal. My time in jail began after a nearly 24-hour-drive, little sleep, and plenty of travel stress.
I can generally feel the deficiencies in my circulatory system and heart, especially with magnesium and potassium. This manifests as splitting headaches as well as heart palpitations. In this case, there were a bit of both, and these symptoms led me to balancing with a banana on Saturday morning.
As for the experience of being basically in jail without food for a week, here are my suggestions:
1) Keep physical exertion and activity to a minimum; do stretch, walk, practice breathing and meditation, and sleep a lot. Your body may not give you much of a choice.
2) Stay hydrated, but not over-hydrated. I remember urinating perhaps a dozen times in a day, depending on the day, but having only 2 bowel movements throughout the entire week. It’s important to make sure toxins and other nasty stagnant bits are encouraged to leave. Water, deep breathing practice, and healthy movement are your main sources of expediting this.
3) One may be prone to sleep disruptions, headaches, body aches, and other pesky distractions beyond pangs of hunger and an ongoing barrage of television food commercials of which there may be a hundred in a day. Similarly, when food arrives on trays, everyone else will be eating and you may or may not receive a tray. (This depends on whether you specifically announce your intent to fast and request a tray NOT be given to you.) I chose to receive food and distribute it among my cellmates. The cost here is the amazing amount of styrofoam used–each cell block fills a garbage bag full of styro-waste every single day.
4) You WILL be offered food by other inmates, even if they know you are fasting – for some, fasting is an alien concept. As I did eat a banana, this did not help the learning curve for them.
5) Some delirium was expected, and the effervescent state of fasting was a constant.
Any final suggestions?
Make the most of your experience by talking and writing about it when you get out. You can get your own mugshot at the VineLink.com website for New York state (https://vinelink.com/vinelink/initSearchForm.do?siteId=33004). It’s searchable by inmate name. Somewhat of a workaround is involved in order to save it, but it might be good for a keepsake or media efforts. This is not a perfect system, as “Michael” was spelled “Micheal,” so be diligent.
I chose to expand my outreach through a school visit in the afternoon of the day of my release. This is a prime example of how to include the youth in the community AND by extension (both for young children as well as high-schoolers) engage their parents. Consider the frothy parental fanaticism of support culture around sports, music, and other fields of interest where their children may devote energy. As an educator of over a decade and having coordinated hundreds of school programs, I find this approach an essential tool for ensuring the long-term resilience of a community. We must make way for the progressive youth to explore better options for ecological existence and instill a sense of personal importance to individual youth. Our culture currently embodies a sense of futility and hopelessness that makes it imperative that we find ways of remembering how to exercise the people’s rights collectively and individually.