February 22, 2018

Letter from Chemung County Jail – Part II

By SANDRA STEINGRABER, Part 2, April 19, 2013

(Click here for Part 1)

Why I am in Jail on Earth Day

This morning–I have no idea what time this morning, as there are no
clocks in jail, and the florescent lights are on all night long–I heard the familiar
chirping of English sparrows and the liquid notes of a cardinal. And there
seemed to be another bird too–one who sane burbling tune. Not a robin–wren?
The buzzing, banging, clanking of jail and the growled announcements of
guards on their two-way radios–which also go on all night–drowned it out. But
the world, I knew, was out there somewhere.

The best way to deal with jail is to exude patience, and wrap it around a
core of resolve and surrender. According to New York state law, all inmates
upon arrival are isolated from the general population until they are tested for
tuberculosis and that test comes back negative. Typically, that takes three
days. Isolation means you are locked inside your cell with no access to the
phone (the phone for cell block D happens to be located, tantalizingly, four feet
from my bars–just out of reach); no access to books (the two books I have in my
cell, lent to me by an empathetic inmate, are the Bible and Nora Roberts’
Carolina Moon, which is a 470 page paperback whose opening sentence is,
“She woke in the body of a dead friend.”); and, of course, no access to wi fi, cell
phones, e-mail or the internet.

I am writing with a borrowed pencil on the back of the “Chemung County
Inmate Request Form,” which is a half sheet of paper. I am writing small and
revising in my head. (Forgive the paragraphing–I’m trying to save space.)
Yesterday, I was told that no medical personnel were available to
administer my TB test. When I was called down to the nurse this morning, she
asked why I didn’t have my TB lest yesterday. Of course, she was available
yesterday. The resulting delay means that I will join the prison population and
be released from 24 hour lock-down on Monday, rather than Sunday.
Frustration will be counter-productive and place me closer to despair.

Let–it–go surrender, ironically, keeps me in touch with my resolve.
So, Monday, which is Earth Day, I will emerge from my cell and join the
ecosystem of the Chemung County jail, where the women’s voices are loud and
defiant. Stingray, (not her actual nickname) broke a tooth yesterday. When she
showed it to officer Murphy’s Law (that’s his actual nickname) and said, “the
other half is in my cell,” Murphy’s Law replied, “So, you think the tooth fairy’s
going to come?” And then he left.

But she stood at the iron door and called for pain meds, over and over in a
voice that I use for rally speeches. Full oration. Projecting to the rafters.

Stingray is six months pregnant.

She got her pain meds.

Stingray is my inspiration. How can I use my time here–separated from
the whole human race by the layers of steel and concrete–to speak loudly and
defiantly about the business plans of a company called Inergy that seeks to turn
my Finger Lakes home into a transportation and storage hub for fossil fuel
gases? It is wrong to compress and bury explosive gases in salt caverns beside
and beneath a lake–Seneca–that serves as a source of drinking water for
100,000 people. It is wrong to construct a flare stack on the banks of this lake,
which will contribute hazardous air pollutants, including death-dealing ozone,
into the air. It is wrong for DEC and EPA and FERC to turn a blind eye to a
company that has, for the last 12 exceeded its permitted discharge of chemicals
into this lake. It is wrong for a company to claim that basic geological
knowledge about the bedrock itself, is a proprietary trade secret and hide it
from the public and from the scientific community. It is wrong to deepen our
dependency on fossil fuels in a time of climate emergency.

I could express these ideas more eloquently if there were coffee in jail.
There is not.

I was led to cell #1 in block D of the Chemung County jail by three things.
One is the decision of Inergy to industrialize the Finger Lakes region where I live
and, in so doing, aid and abet the fracking industry by erecting a massive
storage depot near the birthplace of my son. I consider this an act of
desecration. That’s what biologists call the proximate cause of my decision to
commit an act of trespass by blockading the Inergy’s compressor station

The ultimate cause is a commentary published last fall in the journal that
all biologists read–Nature–by Jeremy Grantham, who is not a scientist, but an
economist. (www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/491303a) He noted that all
the projections for climate change–even the worst case scenarios–were being
overtaken by real-life data. In other words, our climate situation is worse than
we thought–even when we assumed the worst. Mr. Grantham then exhorted
scientists who have this knowledge to be bold–noting that no one is paying
attention to this data: “Be persuasive, be bold, be arrested (if necessary).”

So, here I am, ringing the alarm bell form my isolation cell on Earth Day.
May my voice be as un-ignorable as Stingray’s.

The third reason is this one: seven years ago, when my son was four
years old, he asked to be a polar bear for Halloween, and so I went to work
sewing him a costume from a chenille bedspread. It was with the knowledge
that the costume would almost certainly outlast the species. Out on the street
that night–holding a plastic pumpkin will with KitKat bars–I saw many species
heading towards extinction; children dressed as frogs, bees, monarch
butterflies, and the icon of Halloween itself–the little brown bat.

The kinship that children feel for animals and their ongoing
disappearance from us literally brought me to my knees that night, on a
sidewalk in my own village. It was love that got me back up. It was love that
brought me to this jail cell.

My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a
stable climate. They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon
gases buried underneath.

The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door.
Can you hear me now?