Sandra Steingraber: Why I Am in Jail

Protest at Crestwood facility at Seneca Lake, October 24, 2014. Photo by Wendy Lynne Lee.
Protest at Crestwood facility at Seneca Lake, October 24, 2014. Photo by Wendy Lynne Lee.

Author and anti-fracking activist Sandra Steingraber refused to pay a fine and was sentenced to two weeks in jail for trespassing when she protested at the Crestwood Midstream gas storage facility on Seneca Lake in New York.

By Sandra Steingraber, EcoWatch

Breakfast 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, photo by Wendy Lynne Lee
Sandra Steingraber, photo by Wendy Lynne Lee

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).

Read more on EcoWatch

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