Jimmy Betts: My Experience in the Schuyler County Jail

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Dec 192014

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.

 Posted by at 5:17 pm

Judy Leaf: My brief experience in the Schuyler County Jail

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Dec 192014

My brief experience in the Schuyler County Jail, December 3rd, 2014

 by Judy Leaf

 Judy Leaf, 67, of Ithaca, was arrested on November 18 and, after refusing to pay her fine, was sentenced on December 3 to serve one day in jail.  Because it was 9 P.M. at the time she was taken from court and because she was released shortly after midnight the next morning her entire time in custody was spent being booked at—and then released from– the Schuyler County Jail.

I was sentenced to one day in jail, which turned out to be just a few hours.

After judge sentenced me, I waited for transportation to the jail with five other inmates who had likewise declined to the pay the fine for trespassing. We were all seated at the table outside the courtroom. At about 9 P.M., a parade of six officers entered the room all carrying handcuffs.  It seemed like overkill to have taxpayers paying for six officers to cuff six peaceful protesters, but that’s what we had. Due to my rotator cuff injury, I asked if my hands could be cuffed in front rather than behind, and the officer obliged.

Generally, the officers seemed respectful and professional. They were grumpy about the bright video lights outside. We were taken in the sheriff’s van to the Schuyler County Jail in Watkins Glen about five minutes away. When I thanked an officer for helping me out of the van, he seemed surprised and said, “You’re welcome!”

The three men were put in the holding tank. And we three women were taken for booking in two small adjoining rooms. There was discussion about what to do with me. Although I was not told directly, it became clear to me that, with only a one-day sentence, I would not be sent to a women’s facility with the other two women, who had received longer sentences.

Eventually, my coat was taken by a female officer, but I was never made to change out of my clothes as the other women were. I had brought two medications with me, and I was assured that they were being locked in an office and would be returned to me. They were.

My booking took place in fits and starts. I was first taken into an interior room and asked a series of questions as an officer filled out the booking form on the computer. He also fingerprinted me. Then I was taken away to wait. Then I was taken to another room where the same questions were asked by another officer who, it would appear, was filling out the same booking form. My mug shot was taken. At about midnight, it became evident that I was to be released very soon. The officers scrambled to give me my suicide interview the few minutes before I was released.

Some short time after midnight I was allowed to make a phone call and was very relieved to find that my friend had stayed in Watkins Glen on a hunch that I’d be released in the middle of the night. Shortly thereafter my things were returned and I was free to leave. I found my friend and another We Are Seneca Lake supporter waiting outside the door—with french fries.

My overall impression is that sheriff’s officers were overwhelmed but getting used to the civil disobedience drill. I was very consciously peaceful, respectful, and cooperative. By and large, the officers always acted in a professional and courteous manner toward me. One newly transferred female officer asked me what all these trespass arrests were about. I was happy to tell her.

 Posted by at 5:12 pm

Kelsey Erickson – My Experience In the Wayne County Jail

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Dec 192014

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.

Jail Culture:

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.

Phone Calls:

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.


 Posted by at 5:08 pm

Susan Mead – My Experience In the Wayne County Jail

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Dec 192014

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.

 Posted by at 5:02 pm

Kelsey Erickson statement (before arraignment)

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Dec 042014
NG-6 Kelsey Erikson-c

Kelsey Erickson

My name is Kelsey Erickson and I am originally from Carlisle, Massachusetts but I consider Ithaca home.

I realize that it is a great privilege for me to be able to decide to go to jail. Many people do not have that choice. In modern day America, there are more people of color incarcerated than there were slaves. That is an extremely unsettling and shameful truth. And many more, like Michael Brown are unjustifiably murdered at the hands of policemen. My act of going to jail for this short period does not even scrape the surface of the unbearable conditions that African Americans are subject to.


On my way back from a protest at Cove Point I attended a Ferguson teach-in in Baltimore and was especially moved by what Reverend Heber said. He said that we cannot change the fact that we have privilege, but we can chose to use it responsibly. I believe that by doing jail time, I am showing my commitment to exercise my privilege responsibly. I am voluntarily giving up my freedom to demonstrate the abuses of privilege that are happening all across the country. Abuse of police who arrest and kill innocent people. Abuse of employers who refuse to hire or pay minimum wage to people of color. And the abuse of mega-industries like Crestwood that the audacity to invade a community, condemn their health and safety, ignore the suffering of fracked communities in Pennsylvania all so they can maximize their profits.


I am voluntarily giving up my freedom to reveal the severe injustices that industries like Crestwood but I stand in solidarity with Michael Brown and countless others like him who have been unlawfully murdered by a corrupt and racist police force. Furthermore to show my solidarity with the Pennsylvania communities that have lost their livelihoods to the fracking industry and for those who have lost their voices due to gag orders, I will be fasting and holding silence for the duration of my jail sentence.

 Posted by at 8:05 pm

Boland and Steingraber jail release statements

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Dec 022014

Anti-Fracking Warriors Steingraber and Boland Released From Jail

| November 26, 2014 9:37 am | Comments

[Editor’s note: On Nov. 26 at 12:01 a.m., Sandra Steingraber and Colleen Boland were released from jail after serving eight days of a 15-day sentence for trespassing at the gates of Crestwood Midstream on the banks of Seneca Lake. They were immediately greeted by a crowd of supporters outside the Schuyler County Jail in Watkins Glen. Below are transcripts of their speeches.

Sandra Steingraber and Colleen Boland right after they were released from jail on Nov. 26 at 12:01 a.m., after serving eight days of a 15-day sentence for trespassing at the gates of Crestwood Midstream on the banks of Seneca Lake. Photo credit: Chris Tate

Steingraber and Boland are among the first wave arrests as part of a sustained, ongoing, non-violent civil disobedience campaign against the storage of fracked gas along the shores of Seneca Lake, a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. There have been 73 arrests so far. Calling themselves “We Are Seneca Lake,” those risking arrest—and their supporters—wear blue during blockades. Donations to the jail fund are greatly appreciated and make a perfect holiday gift.]

Sandra Steingraber:

Hi, everybody! I missed you all. And I missed this beautiful world. I’m glad to be back. And I’m glad to be wearing blue again, instead of orange.

But I’m also glad to have spent this past week in the 24/7 company of my co-defendant and Seneca Lake co-defender, Colleen Boland. Thanks to the kindness of our booking officer, Colleen and I were placed in adjacent cells.

For five days we talked through the wall between us and passed notes back and forth. After our TB tests came back negative, we were reclassified and then could speak to each other face-to-face in the cell block and walk together in circuits together around the rec yard.

Colleen, there is no person I would rather be imprisoned with than you.

One document that we passed back and forth between us was a copy of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it, Dr. King makes the case for civil disobedience as a tool of social change when all other lawful efforts to attain justice have failed.

It was interesting for me to learn that the civil disobedience trainings during the Civil Rights Movement included how to cope with “the ordeals of jail.”

Likely, for King and his fellow civil rights workers, continuing their civil disobedience witness in jail was not a choice, as it is for us, who landed in jail because we respectfully refused to pay our court fines.

Nevertheless, enduring the ordeals of jail still has value. Among other benefits, a jail sentence offers time for reflection.

Here is one insight I’ve had during my own week of reflection. It comes from a fellow inmate who is struggling mightily to overcome a lifetime of drug addiction and sexual abuse that extends back into her early childhood. Abuse is what’s normal for her. She has never lived without it. So, how to move forward? She told us, “I’m not trying to find myself. I’m trying to CREATE myself.”

I think that’s our challenge, too. We’ve been living so long under the tyranny and abuse of thefossil fuel industry that it’s come to seem normal to us. We have never experienced life without it.

So, when a Texas-based gas company buys our lakeshore in order to store vast quantities of explosive hydrocarbon gas in the old salt mines underneath—imperiling drinking water, theclimate and everything in between—we don’t know what to do. All we know is that Big Oil and Gas has always had its ravaging way with us.

We can’t find the path to victory; we have to CREATE it.

That’s going to require a lot of work from all of us over a sustained period of time. What Colleen and I just did is only a tiny part of the struggle. So, please don’t thank us. Tell us what YOU are going to do.

And, now, to explain further our prohibition on thank-yous, here is my friend, U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sergeant (Retired), Colleen Boland, defendant and defender.

Sandra Steingraber and Colleen Boland in orange jumpsuits and shackles as they were brought to the Schuyler County jail from the Chemung County jail for release.

Colleen Boland:

Thank you all for braving the cold and coming out at such a late hour to welcome Sandra and me home.

As many of you know, a little over a month ago, and with the full support of many of you here tonight, I chose to embrace my military past and take on Crestwood Midstream and the oil and gas establishment. I was arrested for trespassing on October 29.

For this action, I donned pieces of my Air Force uniform, and, I have to say, it has served me well. Recalling the hardships and dehumanization that came with basic training long ago helped me immeasurably to endure the discomforts of a seven–day jail stay.

Drummed into us, over and over again, throughout basic training, was one fundamental principle: leave no one behind. On the obstacle course, before we could move onto the next barrier, we had to stop, look back, and make sure no one was in trouble behind us.

During last few hours in lock-up tonight, I couldn’t help but feel that I was about to leave new comrades behind: my fellow cellmates in cell block C. With the exception of my next-door neighbor in cell number 3 (Sandra Steingraber), I knew that I would soon be leaving behind women who told us they believe in what we are doing and wholeheartedly support us.

And they thanked us.

Due to their circumstances and the heart-wrenching life stories they freely shared with us, I understand they can’t join us on the front lines—now or anytime in the near future—even though they said they gladly would. They’ve got life-saving work to do—on themselves and for their children. So, I give them a pass.

Thanks accepted.

But, as I sat in my locked cell, day after day, I realized I’m growing less patient towards those who are quick to thank and painfully slow to step up. We are in a crisis here—along Seneca, and in Horseheads, and Lowman, and Painted Post, and in other communities throughout the region that are threatened with fracking and fracking infrastructure.

Time is ticking out. Call me cranky at this late hour if you wish, but I believe it’s high time for those who know the perils we face to find a way to contribute.

Not everyone needs to go to jail. But for those Seneca Lake Defenders who are considering trading in their blue garb for orange, I encourage them to do so. It is important to keep the spotlight on what is happening here, and I believe filling the jails with physically able folks will help do that.

A special note to women who are considering accepting a jail sentence in lieu of paying fines: I can say with confidence that Sandra and I have cleared the minefields inside the Chemung County jail. The women inmates there are prepared to welcome you, watch over you and show you the ropes. From their cells, they are prepared to help us in our fight in the only way that is available to them.

 Posted by at 8:31 pm

The Crappy Mom Manifesto: Letter to Fellow Mothers from the Chemung County Jail

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Dec 022014

 The Crappy Mom Manifesto: Letter to Fellow Mothers from the Chemung County Jail

| November 24, 2014 6:08 pm | Comments

ssteingraberbwLast month extreme fossil fuel extraction and I were both recipients of an accusatory outburst by my 13-year-old.

“I hate fracking!” he said, half yelling, half sobbing. “Fracking turns you into a crappy mom!”

And he is right. Because of my ongoing efforts to halt both fracking and fracking’s metastasizing infrastructure from invading New York State, I have not chaperoned a school trip in three years. I missed Elijah’s opening-night star turn in Romeo and Juliet. I did not attend the high school girls’ cross country state championship, in which his sister competed. In fact, I missed all the races of the whole season, and, as such, am the only parent of a varsity runner who can make that claim. I know that because my 16-year-old periodically reminds me of my exceptionalism on this front.

Filling the jails with mothers as a kind of collective SOS signal is only one tool among many in building a climate change movement.

I seldom help with homework. I sometimes pull all-nighters in order to finish up fracking-related writing projects and am barely functional while scrambling eggs for breakfast. This is also my excuse for why I signed a permission slip for my son to travel to a concert performance as a member of the school chorus, not noticing that the date conflicted with the opening night of the play—the one I wasn’t going to be attending due to a fracking-related lecture—and so brought the wrath and annoyance of the middle school music teacher down upon our heads.

And when my daughter called to say that she needed to stay after school to make up a chemistry test and could I please arrange a ride for her, I was at that exact moment staring at a line of blue and red flashing lights screaming toward me and a group of fellow civil disobedients standing on a blockade line.

“Honey, I’ll do the best I can, but we’ve got arrests going on here.”

It’s hard to dial a cell phone when your hands are cuffed behind your back.

It’s even harder when you’re in jail without a cell phone. Which is where I am now. I’m inmate number 20140190 of cell block 5C in the Chemung County Jail. Happily, I’ll be out in time for Thanksgiving—although through no good planning on my part. As near as I can see, jails are short staffed and don’t like doing releases on holidays. But I don’t know for sure. Explanations are short to come by here. I do know that, because no higher-rung members of the jail administration work on weekends, I won’t be released from keep-lock until Monday even though my TB test was verified as negative on Saturday. Ergo, except for daily showers, I am confined to my cell. I haven’t talked to my kids in two days.

Let’s go back to that half-hearted and basically crappy promise, “I’ll do the best I can,” as delivered to my daughter by her mother, who was overseeing an unlawful action (trespassing) at the time. I’ll do the best I can (along with the equally crappy, I’ll try) basically functions as a pre-excuse for failure to see something through. It was Winston Churchill who said—and I’ll have to paraphrase here as I don’t have access to Google—Don’t do your best. Do what’s required.

It would be easy to say that results-oriented Churchillian determination is the approach I take, as a biologist, when confronting fossil fuel extremism (and its greatest enabler, fracking), while good-intentioned half-measures are what I dole out, as a mother, at home. But that’s not exactly right. Instead, it’s precisely because I have access to the peer-reviewed literature, as a biologist, that I have come to understand climate change as a mass murderer that has my children in its sights. (And fracking is its toxic, thuggish, water-destroying accomplice). I’m informed by the data; I’m animated by a mother’s love.

And here in cell 3, I’m doing what’s required so that my kids have a future. Above all else, my job as their mother is to provide them that.

I am not the only mother whose priorities are thus aligned. I was arrested, side by side, with two other mothers, Mariah Plumlee and Stephanie Redmond, who have three young children apiece. At her own sentencing, Plumlee said, “I’m really sad and angry to be here. I don’t like to break the rules; I usually try to follow them. But I also have principles and children,” saidRedmond. “I have children, and the laws of motherhood supersede the laws bought and paid for by large corporations.”

I fully believe that Mariah, Stephanie and I are on the leading edge of an emergent social movement that will only grow in numbers and intensity as the dire urgency of the climate change emergency (and fracking, its obscene, clanging bell) becomes evermore apparent. In the meantime, we mothers who are already fighting on the frontlines—with our whole hearts, all of our spare cash and as much time away from our kids, spouses and jobs as we dare offer—inhabit two parallel worlds. When we rush back from the rally, the press conference, the public hearing, the arraignment, in order to attend the soccer game, the Halloween party, the holiday concert, the parent-teacher conference, we listen to other moms talk about bake sales, home improvement projects, vacation plans and college admission criteria. (Oh, and maybe the crazy weather we’ve been having that threatens to close the roads and cancel the game). Some of us are on wartime footing. Some of us don’t yet know there is a war going on.

There are a number of reinforcing reasons for what I call climate helplessness—we’re mostly beyond climate denial at this point—and they begin with the capitulation, corroboration and appeasement of both the mainstream environmental community and the federal government toward the oil and gas industry. Less Winston Churchill, more Neville Chamberlain. None of the Obama Administration’s proposals—including the Clean Power Plan—hold any hope of mounting a challenge serious enough to solve the problem in the unextendable time frame that remains to us. Meanwhile, those in the scientific community who are valiantly bringing forth data and attempting to describe our emergency situation to the public use terms like “planetary tipping points” and “existential threats.” They could say “loss of pollination systems resulting in widespread hunger, a phenomenon that is already underway” and “threats to the existence of your children and grandchildren,” which might focus the picture more clearly.

Filling the jails with mothers as a kind of collective SOS signal is only one tool among many in building a climate change movement as powerful as women’s suffrage (Susan B. Anthony was arrested for the act of voting in a presidential election on November 18, 1872) or the Civil Rights Movement (Martin Luther King, Jr. had many small children at home during his several sojourns in county jails). But jail time has several important, value-added relevancies. One is that the enforced extended separation from the natural world serves as a potent reminder of everything we depend upon the world to do for us. Five days without clouds, sky, stars, leaves, birdsong, wind, sunlight and fresh food has left me homesick to the point of grief. I now inhabit an ugly, diminished place devoid of life and beauty—and this is exactly the kind of harsh, ravaged world I do not want my children to inhabit.

And the other is that jail teaches you how to stand up and fight inside of desperate circumstances. This morning we said goodbye to Casey (not her real name) who was headed to court to face charges related to drug addiction. Which itself is related to a childhood filled with sexual abuse—the memories of which were retriggered when her own seven-year-old daughter was raped. We all urged, as we wished her well: Keep fighting. You can’t give up on life.

Inside cell 3, I have a dream: an environmental movement full of crappy moms who do what’s required and refuse to give up on life.

 Posted by at 5:20 pm

Sandra Steingraber: Why I am in Jail

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Dec 022014

Sandra Steingraber: Why I am in Jail

| November 21, 2014 4:22 pm | Comments

ssteingraberbwBreakfast in the Chemung County Jail is served at 5 a.m. This morning—Friday, November 21, 2014—it was Cheerios and milk plus two slaps of universally-despised “breakfast cake.” Along with trays of food—which are passed through the bars—arrive the morning rounds of meds for the inmates who take them. Now comes my favorite time of day in jail—the two quiet hours between breakfast and 7 a.m. before the television clicks on and we are ordered to make our beds and the loud day begins. Between the end of breakfast and 7 a.m., most women go back to sleep. Now I can hear only the sounds of their breathing—different rhythms all—and, on the far side of the steel door—the occasional voices of the C.O.s (correction officers, a.k.a. the guards) and the walkie-talkie orders they themselves are receiving.

Sandra Steingraber wrote this letter for EcoWatch from the Chemung County Jail this morning to share with our readers and beyond.

Meanwhile, my bed is already made and I have repurposed my small laundry basket—by flipping it upside down—into a table on which I am writing. And because I am a writer who is writing, I am happy.

I am also happy because I know that, by writing, I am fulfilling a promise to Ashley (not her real name) who brought me last night a sharpened pencil and a stack of inmate medical request forms to use as writing paper. After hearing my story—narrated through the bars of my cell as I am being kept in “keeplock” until the results of my TB screening come back—Ashley said, “I know about you Seneca Lake protesters. I read about that. But only once. You have to keep fighting. You have to write to the newspaper. You can do that from here, you know. You can’t just sit in your cell for 14 days and do nothing. You have to fight.” And then she ran off and found me paper.

Sitting on a stool outside my cell—which is welded to the far row of bars—Ashley freely dispensed advice last night for the We Are Seneca Lake movement. “Don’t give up. Keep writing the newspapers. They are always looking for stories.” She added, “I may be only 21, but I’m wise about some things.”

Here’s Ashley’s story: She was arrested two years ago—at age 19—for stealing a pumpkin. She is jailed now for violating probation. She has three kids—ages 6, 4 and 2—who are staying with her foster mother in Allegany County until she serves her time. She’ll be out the day after Christmas. Meanwhile, she’s studying for her GED and laying plans to go to college.

Half the women in my cell block are here for probation violation. One thing they all agree on: It’s almost impossible to be a single mother in search of housing and a job, both of which require mobility, and comply with probation rules, which restrict mobility. Better to do the time and then make a fresh start.

I get that. And it’s a logic that runs parallel to my own. I have come to believe that a successful civil disobedience campaign likewise depends on the willingness of at least some of us to gladly accept jail time over other kinds of sentences, such as paying fines.

There are four reasons for this. First, it shows respect for the law. In my case, I was arrested for trespassing on the driveway of a Texas-based energy company that has the sole intention of turning the crumbling salt mines underneath the hillside into massive gas tanks for the highly-pressurized products of fracking: methane, propane and butane. (The part of the plan involving methane storage has already been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). Even before the infrastructure for this gas storage is built, Crestwood Midstream has polluted the lake with salt, at levels that exceed its legal limits. Crestwood’s response is to pay a fine and keep polluting. By contrast, I refuse to pay a fine to excuse my crime and so accepted the lawful consequences of my actions.

Second, extending one’s civil disobedience testimony in jail shows seriousness of intent. Four of the 17 civil disobedients who have so far been arraigned as part of the We Are Seneca Lake campaign have chosen jail instead of fines: 75-year-old Dwain Wilder, a veteran of the Navy who was incarcerated for Veteran’s Day; 86-year-old Roland Micklem, a Quaker, who is now incarcerated in the Schuyler County Jail [Roland Micklem was released yesterday due to health concern]; 58-year-old Colleen Boland, a retired Air Force sergeant who served in the White House; and me (I’m a 55-year-old biologist and author).

Colleen occupies the cell next to mine. We talk through the wall. Colleen, Roland and I are on track to find out what they serve prisoners for Thanksgiving dinner.

By our willing separation from our families, by our sacrifice and consent to suffer, by our very absence, we are saying that we object in the strongest terms to the transformation of our beloved Finger Lakes community into a hub for fracking. We object to the occupation of our lakeshore by a Houston-based corporation that seeks to further build out fossil-fuel infrastructure in a time of climate emergency, and in so doing, imperils a source of drinking water for 100,000 people.

Third, by filling the jails with mothers, elders and veterans, we peacefully provoke a crisis that cannot be ignored by media or political leaders. Of course, civil disobedience is always a method of last recourse, deployed when all other methods of addressing a grievance have been exhausted. We have turned over all stones. We have submitted comments, written letters, offered testimony, filed Freedom of Information requests for secret documents—only to see our legitimate concerns brushed aside. Our incarceration shows that the regulatory system is broken. So far, in the Seneca Lake campaign, there have been 59 arrests, and a majority of those have yet to be sentenced. There will be more of us in jail before the year is out.

And the fourth reason is this: spending time in jail is a time of personal transformation. Alone with a pencil, some inmate request forms for stationery, the Bible and your own thoughts, you discover that you are braver than you knew. You are doing time, and time offers the possibility of rededicating oneself to the necessary work ahead: dismantling the fossil fuel industry in the last 20 years left to us, before the climate crisis spins into unfixable, unending calamity.

Last night I learned how to create a tool for changing the channel on the television, which blares from the other side of two rows of bars. It involves twisting newspaper around a row of pencils and stiffening it with toothpaste.

Thus do the women of the Chemung County Jail—all mothers—exert agency over the circumstances of their lives and defy the status quo. That’s a skill set we all need. As Ashley scolded me last night, while passing a sharpened pencil through the bars, “You can’t just sit there for the next 14 days. Start fighting.”


 Posted by at 5:15 pm