Writing From Jail on Earth Day

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The latest from environmental activist Sandra Steingraber, who was Bill’s guest on Moyers & Company the day before she began her fifteen day sentence for blckading a gas compression rig. Her letter, written from the Chemung County jail in Elmira, NY, is reprinted here, courtesy of Common Dreams.

This morning – I have no idea what time this morning, as there are no clocks in jail, and the fluorescent 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 sang a 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.

Sandra Steingraber

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 test 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 quarters, 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 driveway.

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. 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 from 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?

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. is an ecologist, author, internationally recognized authority on the environment links to cancer and human health, and co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. She is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment and, her most recent, Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis She’s featured in this week’s episode of Moyers & Company.

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  • http://twitter.com/SpiritualAnimal SpiritualAnimal

    Thank you Mrs. Steingraber for your commitment to such a worthy cause!

  • Renette

    Oh Sandra…thank you for your selflessness in calling attention to this horrific degradation of Mother Earth and its amazing inhabitants. Unfortunately, many homosapiens don’t much care about her or us. And unfortunately, your bravery landed you in jail. Please know that many have your back and support you. And please continue spreading your knowledge….we are listening.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=679449342 Ldgreen Jr

    They could have done their own independent chemical testing of the lake before trying to take on skynet…

  • Nan B.

    Oh how I would love it if a bus load of we Rochesterians could visit her!!!

  • Laurie Tanenbaum

    Cory turned 39 this year. In high school, during the first Iraq War, Desert Storm, Cory and a group of other students invited Sandra to address a school assembly on the war. She spoke about the impact of war on the environment. Sandra was as eloquent and forward then as she is today. The students were amazed. No one had ever talked to them about this ravaging of the earth and water and everything connected to it. The conservative teachers rioted. Cory and other students received one more lesson in standing up and dealing with the ugliness of those who do not want to look.

    Pass this on to Sandra if you’re able. Sandra continues to be one of our heroes.

  • S Foxworthy

    Thank you for your beautiful, heart-wrenching words. May you continue to find courage and resolve to wait out these long days. You are the real voice that Dr. Seuss wrote about in “Horton hears a Who” – We are here, we are HERE, WE ARE HERE!!!!
    Thank you for your love of this planet.

  • http://twitter.com/stringrrl stringrrl

    i read this letter with tears in my eyes. Thank you.

  • Roberta

    Thank you for your courage & honesty. Thank you for caring so very much about our Earth & it’s children. Thank you for standing strong for your beliefs.

  • Susan Weinstein

    So courageous, I am grateful for your sacrifice and awed by your commitment. I will certainly carry this message to whatever internet places I can. Thank you for my son.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Karl-Kessler/775552864 Karl Kessler

    Ms. Steingraber, I saw your talk with Bill Moyers and cried, from the apprehension of beauty, in the same way Beethoven moves me. How you manage to explain with such visceral clarity, with such composure, the magnitude of the injustice being done to humanity in the name of “profit” is just amazing and awe inspiring. I would love to get involved, but don’t even know where to start… Help!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1440722475 Anne Hartley

    Thank you for this Earth Day prayer from jail. Thank you for using your voice to speak for nature, on which our survival depends.

  • http://www.facebook.com/srayphand Sapuro Rayphand

    Painful but comforting words help the psychological pain and suffering; sweet sorrow exudes therefrom

  • Jody

    Dear Sandra, I totally agree with you. You are so right. My grandson loves and wants to protect animals. You are an American heroine. Love, Jody

  • melissa dodd

    thank you and God bless you you are a true hero

  • Sara

    I live on Keuka Lake. I would like to help in any way I can! Please advise me as to where I can sign up and join in!

  • Krys Holmes

    You are not alone SAndra. Rock steady, be strong. We are with you.

  • Denise Roth Barber

    Yes, absolutely! we are here, we are HERE, WE ARE HERE!!! Also, thank you, as always, for all that you do, Sandra!

  • dave kronner

    Sandra Steingraber you are a true hero ,and we are listening, acting when we can

  • H Alcala

    Your bold words of love and your willingness to serve time in jail for your beliefs are truly inspiring. I wish I had your courage! When I saw you on Bill Moyer’s program, my heart was indeed heavy. That same day your voice was heard, there was an editorial in the New York Times, “A toothless Law on Toxic Chemicals.” Be of good courage as you follow your conscience. My thoughts are with you.

  • Anonymous

    Like Commenter Karl, I too would like to know how to “sign up” for effective environmental action. I was one of many who were bussed out to Washington D.C. in February to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline; approximately 35,000 attended. Notwithstanding, clearly that was insufficient to cause even a blip on the screen, since the “new” EIS came out recently and it is nearly orgasmic over the countless “benefits” of completing the project. I am becoming discouraged about citizens’ attempts to affect their lawmakers’ votes in the face of the unlimited and obscene amounts of money now affecting these decisions, compliments of “our” Supreme Court. Seriously, how can we regular citizens begin to really be EFFECTIVE??

  • Bobbie Morgan

    I am with you in spirit, Sandra. We met years ago at an event in Seattle for the Washington Toxics Coalition. Your writing is a gift. Your appearance on Moyers was moving. You have such a way of using language to tell the story of toxic trespass-your phrase- and you powerfully connect the dots from that to climate chaos. Thank you. Heck, if you and Bill Mc Kibben and Tim de Christopher can do time in jail, so could I.

  • http://twitter.com/T2productguy Kenneth R. Hampshire

    What fuel we as humans harness has little to do with sustainability in the long run. There are simply too many humans to sustain in any one of dozens of ways, energy being only the most glaring. Conservation is meaningless, as we increase the human burden on the planet faster than any conservation could ever compensate for, and of course, at some point, the sheer numbers could not be supported with even 99% conservation.

    We as a species are no more intelligent than an amoeba when it comes to collective action to save our own asses.

  • http://www.facebook.com/donna.minionolsenlober Donna Minion Olsen Lober

    Bless You Sandra And Thank You So Much For Your Efforts

  • kty

    Sandra, You are a true hero. God Bless you for your strength and courage and intelligence, I will spread the word as I can, to my friends and family.

  • Dave

    I heard your presentation on NPR the other day. I learned so much. The media, for the most part, does not provide comprehensive scientific information on fracking. I appreciate all of your efforts and courage to speak and stand for truth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cynthia.ojeda2 Cynthia Ojeda

    I hear ya sister, loud and clear. We need to get off the computer and on the streets as we have done before. Must do more.

  • Anezka Sebek

    Sandra, many years ago, I spent a few days in jail to protest the building of the Seabrook Nuclear Power plant. We used the momentum of our 2 weeks in the holding pens of New Hampshire armories prior to our individual jail sentences as a way to fuel the NO NUKES movement. Only the Three-Mile-Isle disaster a few years later caused the US to put a moratorium on the deadly use of nuclear power (another toxic fossil fuel). Unfortunately, the audacious and powerful toxic nuclear energy machine has succeeded to quiet the NO NUKES movement so that the moratorium was lifted by none other than President Obama’s Energy Czar, Secretary Chu, who conservatives call a “climate activist.” Where do we get these confusing media hyped misunderstandings of all of these issues? What powerful capitalist enterprise pushes the toxic agenda that will eventually eradicate most mammals on earth?

    I want you to know that I am standing with you. Let me know when you need us to rise up against the insanity of FRACKING. I will be there.

  • Arpana

    Beautiful, eloquent, and true to the core. Thank you for your powerful words. May they inspire many to action!!

  • BT

    Bravo for your commitment & dedication to saving your region & our earth even though the sacrifices by you & your family are significant I believe what you are doing is necessary. Heartbreak is the norm among citizens with no voice who try to stand up to companies destroying our air & environment whose actions fuel climate chaos. Individuals have no legal recourse & in your case going to jail was commendable to have your voice heard as simply paying a fine is equivalent to being silenced!

  • Pat Pickren

    The address at Chemung County jail is 211 William St., Elmira, NY 14901 for those who want to write a letter of support to Sandra Steingraber. Please pass this on.

  • Dan Donahoe

    I saw her on Bill Moyer’s show on Sunday in Chicago. She makes me ashamed of my silence and apathy to a situation growing worse before my eyes (and my children). I don’t know where to start but I know I have to. I have heard that when you hear the truth it seems as if you have always known it. It seems overwhelming but I need to find a way to start to help in this battle. And I do believe it will be a battle. Time to stand up and be counted. To Sandra, we believe in what you are doing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/supfoo Mark Long

    We are shamed because we’re not joining you in filling the jails to defend our Mother Earth.

  • nbh

    You are such an inspiration, so eloquently expressing the despair so many feel about about the desecration of our planet, and our bodies. And what a hero you are for living by your moral convictions, and fighting those that would bring us all to ruin for another buck. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I watched your interview with Bill Moyers where I reside here in Central Europe (Poland) and it touched me. As an American, this especially concerns me because my family owns a large tract of property in the Catskill Mountains region in New York State near the town of Windham, which is part of the Marcellus Shale Formation and located directly in a primary watershed area, not far from the Finger Lakes. Fracking will endanger the lives of inhabitants in the entire region if eventually permitted. It is disturbing how large energy concerns are able to circumvent federal and local environmental laws and regulation, this is a crime. Even more so, the way politicians which represent the people turn a blind eye to what is going on. I thank and fully support you for your courageous fight for the health of human beings. You are amazing!

  • PKLos Altos

    Your interview with Bill Moyers inspired me so much. Your beautiful, authentic, principled words, all backed by sound science, came through the TV loud and crystal clear and hit me like a bell. I don’t want to be a good German citizen circa 1940 either. How easily put off we are – anything for a quiet life- when we know harm is going on around us- and to us. Your presentation of ‘informed futility’ as a starting point was brilliant. On my To Do today: Take a letter into Target asking them to move away supplying the 100 most toxic chemicals. You’ve inspire me to begin my journey. Your jail time is not in vain.

  • Francine

    Sandra, I am just reading your Earth Day message today, April 26. Thank God for people like you who renew my faith in human kind. Thank you for your intelligence, compassion and resolve. Thank you for your courage.

  • DHust

    Dear Sandra, like the many who have commented,I am in awe of your work and commitment. I am working to harness my own commitment to your efforts to protect this piece of earth, upstate NY. It is hard to know where to start, I will somehow.
    Thank you,

  • http://www.facebook.com/lauras36 Laura Stone

    Thank you for standing up for the earth. You are there in my place-a place where I should be. I thought New York State was not allowing this destruction of our land with toxic waste. There should have been 100 or 1000 of us there with you. Keep me informed so I can be there to protest with you.

  • janemarie

    Transplanted western New Yorker living in Texas. We see these stories of the fracking and the damage it does all around us, such as In Arkansas and east texas and north texas….thank you for your courage and steadfast commitment to saving the planet and its species….

  • Teri

    Thank you for standing up for what you believe in and showing people what a hero does…not in our storybooks but in real life.