My Experience in the Wayne County Jail (Lyons, New York)
By Susan Mead (in conversation in with Sandra Steingraber)
Susan Mead, age 66, lives in Ithaca. She was given a seven-day sentence for trespassing but served only 39 hours in the Wayne County Jail.
What surprised you the most about your jail experience?
My experience at Wayne County Jail was actually warm and friendly. There was lots of light and respectful banter with the guards assigned to intake that middle of the night when we had finally arrived at the Wayne County Jail.
I had dreaded the possibility of an overwhelmingly loud TV presence that would intrude on my own thoughts and concentration, but there was just one TV on my pod, turned down respectfully so you could tune it out. Thanks for that! Also, I was warm, as I was allowed to wear four layers of clothing on my trunk, and wrap up in my blanket any time I wanted.
What made it a meaningful experience for you?
I was only jailed for 39 hours in total. What meant the most to me was my interactions with the other women in my pod. I am past 65 years old, and all the other prisoners with me appeared to be between 20 and 30. They wanted to check me out, and of the nine prisoners in my pod, six were not in lockdown and three of us were, and we happened to be three in a row. So, all the other young women would spend time with us, walking by me and saying hi, and going farther to one of those in lock down they knew better, then coming back and engaging me in a warm interchange of “who are you?”, and “what are you here for?” as a beginning.
At certain times of the day, the other inmates in my pod brought their blanket down and spread them on the floor along with magazines. They talked, laughed and swore profusely, but without anger.
That first morning, with one of the women prisoners, I ventured, “See that book over there? Could you hand it through to me?” as I had not prepared by mailing in any books. It turned out to be a Stephen King novel. Tolerable!
How did you spend your time?
In lockdown, with no sleep the first night, I worked to not sleep at all the whole day, so that I could possibly rest at night.
Exercise: I did stretches, both standing and prone.
I had no mail, no TB test, and showers were only allowed for me between 5 A.M. and 5:30 A.M., same time as breakfast, so I sponge bathed.
Breakfast – dry cereal, 1% milk, 3 slices pure white bread, one hard boiled egg. 4 ou. of a juice.
Mid-day – white bread, some kind of meat-based patty, green beans overcooked and tiny amount, milk with every meal
Supper – same variation as lunch, and two small, boxed cookies.
What were the inmates like?
This means the most to me. The young women were all smart and and vivid in expressing their feelings, thoughts, anger, laughter, desire to keep it together and get out as soon as possible.
As an example, let me tell you about two of the women who spent time talking with me through the bars. Both were young mothers, with children under five. One described to me interactions with her grandmother and mother, who were caring for her children while she was imprisoned. She showed me pictures of her two children. She was most defiant in her speech and, with loads of anger covering her anguish. I asked her about her arm, as the forearm was in terrible shape. She told me that she had become addicted to heroin, was shooting bad stuff, and her skin at the injection sites was necrotic. She had just undergone two consecutive surgeries, and from the sound of it, the first was debridement and pigskin, and the second was skin-grafting, using skin harvested from her thigh. She was tender at all times in her speech about her children and family, At other times, she release some of her anger/rage carefully without triggering a response from the guards.
The second young mother, who sat with me all during my second breakfast and took my tray away, as that was her job that day, told me she was the mother of a child under one. She told me that was 24 years old but that the father of her child was 62. She instantly observed the shock on my face when she told me this (and HEH! I love 60+ year-old men but not when they get young girls pregnant). She responded with hesitation, and then said he was “trying to find a place for me and our baby,” but that, for now, her mom had her baby. I do not remember my careful response, but she knew where I stood and understood that I was not judging her, but his behavior.
I did not hear the stories of the other women, but all were friendly and made the experience in jail very fine for me.
Any special jail highlights?
As I was leaving the pod to return to Schuyler County Jail, the woman guard on my pod that morning said to me, “I hear you were arrested for a protest on Seneca Lake.” I responded with a quiet “Yes.” She looked at me straight and clear and then expressed her appreciation of our efforts to address global warming.
That conversation was an unexpected and super-meaningful moment for me in this whole experience. And so was talking to the young prisoners with whom I was housed.