My Experience at the Yates County Jail (Penn Yan, New York)
by Kelsey Erickson
(Kelsey Erickson, age 23, is a Cornell University graduate who currently resides in Carlisle, Massachusetts. She was one of four participants in the Great March for Climate Action to join Seneca Lake Defenders in a blockade and one of three to choose jail. She received the maximum sentence of 15 days and was incarcerated in the Yates County Jail. In May 2013, Kelsey’s friend and fellow Cornellian, Chris Dennis, drowned in Cayuga Lake—which is connected on its north end to Seneca Lake.)
There were a myriad of reasons why I chose to come back to upstate New York and risk arrest in defense of Seneca Lake, but there a few prominent reasons why I went so far as to go to jail for it. I feel a great sense of devotion to the Finger Lakes because my best friend, Chris Dennis, is now and forever a part of one of them. By protecting the lake I feel as though I am protecting his spirit and carrying on his unceasing commitment to end the extreme injustices posed by the fracking industry.
Another large part of my inspiration for doing jail time were the Ferguson protests, which challenged an assumed but false notion that freedom is a right to which all people have equal access. It is clear to me that in our country there are many people who are trapped from the moment of their birth because of societal biases that pre-dispose them to heightened incarceration rates and increased exposure to police brutality and killings. Thus, it is necessary for everyone, who are either victims of our system and who hold privilege work to eliminate these destructive biases. The realization that my freedom is attached to the privilege associated with the color of my skin is what ultimately made me decide to give it up.
When I started my sentence I had intended to fast and hold silence for the duration of my stay. However, I was unable to maintain silence because my booking officers claimed it interfered with my ability to answer processing questions, even though I made clear that I was willing to communicate by writing. I was informed that the penalty for refusing to speak was a felony charge (for obstruction of government information).
This situation made my transition a little more complicated than most, but eventually I was received at the Yates County Jail where I chose to speak. Before being transported there, I had to change out of all of my clothes (under surveillance) except for underwear socks and a T-shirt and put on an orange jumpsuit at the Schuyler County Jail. Schuyler placed all my belongings (except for my ID) in a large plastic bag and placed the bag in a locker along with a label identifying them as mine.
While being transported from one jail to another, inmates are put in handcuffs (with arms in front) that are attached to a chain wrapping their waists. They are also put in leg shackles (same as handcuffs except they secure one’s ankles). Leg shackles are hard to walk in and a bit more uncomfortable than handcuffs.
Once being admitted to Yates, I had to change into their uniform. This time I was unable to keep any of my own clothes, not even my own underwear and socks. They supplied me with their own underwear and socks.
At Yates County Jail, there are both male and female inmates. (The ratio is about 7 men for every five women.) They are put in separate cellblocks, but inmates can still talk to each other through the walls. They also write letters and pass notes to each other through holes and under the door outside their cell (by reaching through the bars). All the inmates I encountered were very friendly and welcoming to new people.
There may be times, however, when your fellow inmates may act in ways that are a bit alarming. Many inmates are in on drug charges, and so they may be suffering withdrawal. They may make disturbing remarks about suicide, which is really distressing to hear. They may not want to talk to you, even if you’re trying to make them feel better. Try not to take their silence personally. They’ll likely be in better spirits in a half hour or so.
My impression of the C.O.s (Correction Officers) at Yates was that they had a good relationship with the inmates. The C.O.s would talk to inmates as they made their rounds and even joke with them.
That being said, the jail staff can and will exert near-complete control over you. For example, I had planned to fast for the entire week of my stay, but, on the fourth day, an officer called out “Erickson” in a stern, authoritative voice and informed me that I had to start eating or there would be no TV for my entire cell block. I tried to tell her the significance of why I was fasting: that it was spiritually and symbolically important to me and that that it was a way of showing solidarity with those who are suffering the worst effects of climate change. This explanation didn’t persuade her. She insisted that I had to start to eating or lose access to the TV.
Out of consideration of my cellmates who had far longer sentences than I, I broke my fast. This is my advice: If you are considering either fasting or holding silence during your time in jail, notify the jail ahead of time (although in my case I could not have known in advance that I was being taken to Yates).
Meals are served three times a day. I wasn’t sure of the exact times, but food seemed to arrive at about 7 A.M., noon and 6 P.M.
Yates was good about serving me only vegetarian meals, but make sure you request them when they process you. My meals usually consisted of the following:
Breakfast: cereal, milk, toast, jam and juice
Lunch: sandwich, juice, piece of fruit
Dinner: veggie burger or pasta, potato salad, broccoli, and a piece of fruit and sometimes ice cream for desert
There is a TV for every cellblock and inmates have access to the remote so they can shut it off, adjust the volume or change the channel.
In the visiting room there is a library and a pool table. You can browse the library for a book or you can also receive books from friends on the outside. If you do receive books from outside, you’ll need to fill out a request form before 9 A.M. the following morning to receive them. (I did not know this so I didn’t get the books until two days after they were given to the jail.)
I was also supplied with a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle that I thoroughly enjoyed. The C.O.s also distributed decks of cards that you can use to play games with your inmates.
Since my sentence was so short, I did not open a commissary account, but it is an option. This is a way of receiving supplementary materials like spare clothes, extra snacks, coffee, etc.
In order to make a phone call, you must pay to establish credit with a specific phone number. The only person I was able to contact directly was my dad because he paid to set up his landline number. You only have a limited amount of time allowed per call, but you will receive a one-minute warning before it drops.
We Are Seneca Lake organizers established regular communication with my dad, and they provided each other regular updates on my status.
Inmates are allowed to take multiple showers a day if they chose to. I’d recommend you always wear your shower shoes.
Inmates are allowed out once a day for exercise once they are cleared as TB-negative.
Visiting days are Saturday and Tuesday. All visits are on an appointment basis. Visitors must call a day in advance to schedule a visit: 315-436-5175. Each visit lasts an hour, and there may be many other inmates and visitors present in the room. After each visit, the inmate is strip-searched to ensure that their visitor didn’t slip them anything.
Inmates are also allowed a 15-minute visit within the first 24 hours after they are admitted.
We Are Seneca Lake organizers arranged for visitors to see me on all possible visiting days.
On the day of my release, I was transferred back to Schuyler County Jail. I was not released shortly after midnight, however, as a result of a big snowstorm and winter travel advisory. Instead, I was released in mid-morning an hour or so after the my fellow male inmates incarcerated at Schuyler had already been released. However, my friends and other We Are Seneca Lake organizers patiently waited until I was released and provided transportation.
Also important to note about your release: make sure you have all of your belongings. I had brought cash in with me that I had to remember to claim in the form of a check. Unfortunately, I forgot to claim my ID at the Schuyler jail and, when I called to ask if they had it, I was told call back the following morning when the sergeant was available. Once I did so, he informed me that my ID had already been mailed to my address in Massachusetts. I’d recommend you write down everything single item that you go in with so that you don’t forget anything. Write it on your arm and then transfer the list onto a piece of paper once you’re incarcerated.
Reflections on Jail Life:
I would say that jail is not as scary or terrible as one might think. It is a time to relax, read and learn about an entirely different type of reality. It can definitely be boring at times, but if you get to know your inmates, it will be a lot more enjoyable.