The Case for Going to Jail and How to Do It: Guide to the Chemung County Jail—for Women

November 30th, 2014

version 1.0

dedicated to Susan Walker, who went first

Foreword by Sandra Steingraber

Participants in the ongoing We Are Seneca Lake civil disobedience campaign have two big decisions to make. The first is whether to risk arrest directly or provide support to those risking arrest—by serving as a driver, photographer, and so on—during actions that involve non-violent civil disobedience. The second, for those who are arrested, is whether or not to do jail time. (Either way, because our charges are classified as violations rather than crimes, no one, including those who accept incarceration, receives a criminal record.)

All roles are equally vital. None are more heroic than others. That said, for those who are able and willing, there is much political and personal value in extending one’s civil disobedience witness into jail. Accepting a jail sentence demonstrates seriousness of intent, shows respect for the law, opens a bigger space in the public conversation for all-important media stories, and prevents one from becoming ensnared in protracted legal battles whose outcome has little connection to our eyes-on-the-prize goal of halting gas storage at Seneca Lake.

As a personal experience, enduring what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the ordeals of jail” deepens one’s commitment to our campaign, fosters patience and bravery, and reveals a side of American life—the world of incarceration—that is otherwise hidden from view. Most of all: there is great satisfaction in aligning one’s actions with one’s values. Those of us who have chosen jail sentences—by refusing to pay the county a fine for the privilege of arresting us—have discovered joy behind our bars and a sense of being at peace with oneself.

And, finally, because jail is one of the few places in the world without to-do lists, email, text messages, Internet access—or even clocks—the incarcerated civil disobedient is given a gift of time: time to read, write, sketch, meditate, reflect, and otherwise draw on one’s own inner resources. In spite of its loud, unpleasant conditions, it’s possible to approach a jail sentence as a week-long retreat.

During my most recent incarceration, I read four novels, one history book, the daily newspaper, three fashion magazines, MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and half the Old Testament.

I drafted three essays, had at least two important personal insights, and listened to countless amazing stories told by other inmates.

I had many opportunities to show kindness to people who desperately needed kindness.

I learned how to make a pair of dice out of a slice of bread.

I learned about the transformational power of beauty simply by watching the sun illuminate the steel fixtures of my cell when it arrived each afternoon through the west-facing windows at the far end of my cellblock.

I became more fearless.

Together with my fellow inmate Colleen Boland, I also co-authored a guidebook about how to survive a week in the Chemung County Jail—which is where women arrested in Schuyler County are sent. (There is no women’s jail in Schuyler County.) Dwain Wilder has done the same for Schuyler County Jail.

The most recent version of this guidebook will be at http://www.wearesenecalake.com/jail-guides/

As general guidelines that apply to men and women both:

Length of sentence: A trespass violation carries a maximum 15-day sentence. If you are so charged, you automatically receive 5 days off for good behavior. Additionally, the day of your arrest counts as one day. Hence, your actual sentence is 9 days. However, the final day is only one minute long, as you will be released at 12:01 a.m.

Thus, for all practical purposes, your sentence is 8 days long. Thus, as soon as you know your arraignment date and have made the decision to accept a jail sentence, you know that you will be incarcerated immediately thereafter—on a Wednesday evening—and will be released at one minute after midnight on Thursday (which is to say, the midnight between Wednesday and Thursday). If Thursday happens to be a national holiday, you will be released a day early, as were Colleen and I. Fortuitously, in 2014, Christmas and New Year’s Day are both on Thursdays.

Privacy: You will have your own individual cell with a sink and a toilet in it.

Medical concerns: While medications are given in jail—and you can bring prescriptions and meds along with you—all medications (including contact lens solution and inhalers) must pass through the medical department before they are dispensed, and this process can sometimes take a couple of days. No one with a life-threatening medical condition that depends on receiving daily medications on an unfailing schedule should choose jail.

Eye glasses and reading glasses: You can bring these in with you. Keep them in your pocket when you go to the courthouse.

Dietary restrictions: Special diets are offered only for medical reasons or religious reasons, and you need to bring letters from a physician or faith leader to verify. In theory, accommodations are offered for food allergies, but in practice, these are sometimes ignored. If you are vegetarian or vegan by choice, you simply won’t be eating much.

TB tests: According to New York State law, all new inmates are given a TB test and are confined to their cells for 72 hours until it can be read. In practical terms, if you go to jail on Wednesday night, you will be given a TB test on Thursday, and you will be released from your cell and allowed out in the common area on Monday. In other words, most of your week will be spent in keep-lock. During that time, you are allowed out of your cell to take a daily shower and make a phone call.

Advance preparation for jail is helpful but not necessary: Jail is a holding tank that is designed for people who did not make plans to be there. Colleen, Dwain, and I wrote these tour guides to the jails in an attempt to answer every anticipated question from the most detail-oriented, need-to-be-prepared individual that we could imagine. But know this: even if you read no further and make a spontaneous decision in front of the judge to plead guilty and respectfully refuse to pay your fine, you will be okay in jail. Really. People there will help you learn the ropes and most of them will do so with kindness and respect. You will never inhabit another environment where simple acts of kindness and reciprocity go such a long way.

Guide to the Chemung County Jail—for Women

by Colleen Boland and Sandra Steingraber

(written while incarcerated with lots of assistance from the other women of cellblock 5C)

November 25, 2014

The Chemung County Jail is a harsh, unpleasant environment, and the food is terrible. But it is not a dangerous place. We have been treated respectfully by both the guards and our fellow inmates. The women in our cellblock have been in and out of many different jails—in Tompkins, Tioga, Steuben, Broome, and Yates Counties. They tell us that Chemung is the worst. In helping us develop these guidelines, they assure us that they also apply to all the other area jails. “If you can do time in Chemung, you can do time anywhere!”

Will I have my own cell?

Yes. It’s about 6 by 7 feet with a narrow bed, a sink, a toilet, and two shelves. The floor is concrete. There are three beige painted walls. The fourth wall of your cell is entirely made of bars and looks out at two walkways. The first one is for inmates to use. The

second walkway—which is separated from the first by another row of bars—is for the correction officers and hall runners (who deliver meals) to use.

There are windows on the far side of the second walkway, but the glass is opaque and does not offer a view outside. However, the windows do allow the sun to shine through.

There are six cells in a cellblock.

No one is allowed into your cell except for you.

What about privacy?

There is a surprising amount of privacy. The C.O.s (correction officers) make rounds every half hour but announce their arrival and ask if everyone “is decent” before walking through. If you are sitting on the toilet or getting ready to take a shower, you can signal them to wait. You can also put your towel on your lap while sitting on the toilet. (You wear a t-shirt under your jumpsuit, so you aren’t shirtless while sitting on the toilet, in any case.)

You share a single shower with the other five inmates in the cellblock, but each day you are given a half-hour to take a shower by yourself.

(It’s a really good shower: stainless steel shower stall and lots of hot water under high pressure.)

In short, no one sees you naked in the cellblock. And you don’t see anyone else naked.

Can I bring my own clothes to jail?

No. All clothes are provided including underwear and sports bras. Your street clothes will stay in a bag until you are released.

(By contrast, in Yates County Jail, you can wear your own underwear and sports bra as long as they are white.)

On arrival, you will be given two orange jumpsuits, one sleep shirt, four pairs of socks, four t-shirts, one sweatshirt, a pair of slip-on shoes, and four pairs of underpants and bras—at least some of which will be hilariously sized. Laundry will be done once, so you won’t run out of clean things.

Is it cold in jail?

We’ve been comfortably warm. (Sometimes too warm.) And you can wear a sweatshirt under your jumpsuit if you are chilly.

Can I bring books and magazines to jail?

No. But you can mail paperback books or magazines to yourself a day before you go in or ask others to send reading material. They should do it right away though, as it takes several days for mail to be processed and checked for contraband.

What should I do to prepare for jail?

Read the Chemung County Jail website.

Medical care in the Chemung County Jail is lackadaisical, and budget cuts have created an understaffed medical department. You can bring in prescription drugs, contact lens solution, and inhalers, but they need to be cleared through medical first, and this can take time. You should not consider jail if your life or well-being depends on not skipping dosages of regular medications, such as for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or mood stabilization. You should not consider jail if you have life-threatening food allergies.

There is no coffee in the Chemung County Jail. Consider weaning yourself from coffee before you go in. (We didn’t. We just slogged through caffeine withdrawal symptoms along with all the other addicts.)

If you wear contact lenses: take with you to the courthouse on the day of your sentencing a pair of glasses, a contact lens case, and a sealed bottle of contact lens solution. You will have to give everything to the booking officer—including your contacts lenses. You will be relying on your glasses until your contacts, case, and solution are cleared. This can take a few days.

Don’t wear jewelry to the courthouse. Wedding bands are the only jewelry allowed in jail.

Consider writing important phone numbers on the inside of your upper arm with a waterproof marker (e.g. family members, friends, legal advisor). The numbers will be readable for at least a few days until you can get a pencil or pen and a piece of paper.

Before leaving the courthouse, hand off your purse or bag to someone you trust. You will not need your wallet or your cell phone in jail.

Should I bring money to jail?

All the cash that you bring in with you will be collected and applied to your commissary account. (You’ll get the change back in the form of a check.) You won’t need any more than $20 for this. Since commissary items arrive on the day you are being released, you will find you are using money to buy shampoo and snacks for the other inmates on your cellblock. This is a good practice as many inmates are indigent and you will find they have shared with you what little they have—including pencils and sheets of paper.

So, it’s nice to bring some cash to buy things for the other inmates who are going to be very helpful to you. By the time you leave, you will want to pay many favors forward.

What will happen after I am sentenced?

You will be driven in a squad car from the Town of Reading courthouse into the Schuyler County jail for booking. A booking officer will take your physical and mental history and assess if you are a suicide risk. You will be fingerprinted (this is all done digitally) and photographed. You will change out of street clothes and into a jumpsuit and may spend some time in a holding cell while transportation is arranged to Chemung County.

There is no phone in the holding cell, but don’t worry. You will have access to one once you reach Chemung.

Before you leave Schuyler for Chemung, you will be “hooked up,” which means ankle manacles and handcuffs that are attached to a chain around your waist.

Here is a trick: when ankle cuffs are going on, flex your foot and curl your toes upwards. This will increase the diameter of your ankle and make the cuffs less tight when you are walking.

When you walk with ankle manacles on, take your time. Shuffling works best.

You will then be helped into the back of a squad car and driven to Elmira, which takes about 40 minutes.

Once handed over to Chemung County Jail officials, you go through a second booking. You are allowed to make a phone call from the holding tank. This is a free phone call.

You will be given a handbook of rules for inmates. Read it!

Ask the booking officer if he will give you a pencil to take up to your cell. Ours did.

You will be given a laundry basket with clean clothes, bedding, toothbrush, toothpaste, a cup, and a bar of soap.

All this takes time. We finally ended up in our cells at about 1:30 a.m.

What is a typical day in the Chemung County Jail?

Breakfast is at 5 a.m. The food will be handed to you through the bars. You are expected to eat quickly. Then you can go back to sleep. By 7 a.m., everyone has to be up and dressed with beds made. Sweatshirts must be worn inside the jumpsuit. Once your bed is made, you cannot get back under the covers until 10 p.m. at night.

After 7 a.m., you can take naps whenever you like, but you have to sleep on top of your covers and your face cannot be covered with your towel or an article of clothing

Lunch is around noon and dinner at 5:30. You eat alone in your cell. Again, you are expected to eat quickly.

On the first day, you will be taken up to medical for your TB test. If you have a headache for lack of coffee (!), you can ask for ibuprofen.

For most of your stay—at least the first 5 days—you will be classified as CKL (classified key-lock), which means you have to stay in your cell except for a half hour in the afternoon when you will be let out by yourself to take a shower and make phone calls. The pay phone is located at the end of the cellblock by the shower.

The other inmates will be curious about you and will bring you books, paper, and pencils if you ask.

The water from your sink tastes skanky, so ask the other inmates to fill your cup with water from the sink at the end of the cellblock. For some reason, it tastes better.

Ice chips are delivered three times a day. You will look forward to this.

It’s good to drink LOTS of water. The food and inactivity is constipating, and the air is dry.

The C.O.s walk through every half hour. Some are friendly. Some are gruff. Their shifts change at 6 a.m., 2 p.m., and 10 p.m. During every shift change, all inmates have to return to their cells for lock-up. Then follows a “count,” in which the new C.O. on duty walks through and takes a count of everyone. Sometimes, there is a “stand for count” order, which means you actually have to get off your bunk and stand up by the bars while the C.O. walks through.

Make friends with your hall runner. She can sharpen your pencil and bring books to you from the jail library.

A copy of the Elmira Star Gazette comes into the cellblock every day, and those confined to their cells have first dibs. (Don’t do the crossword or the Sudoku until everyone has had a chance to read the paper.)

Basically, if you are CKL, that’s your routine.

You can count the hours by listening for the church chimes.

Once you are classified and released from CKL, which is likely to happen on Monday, then you can spend most of your hours outside your cell. Which means you can walk up and down the narrow walkway and sit at the little tables that are welded to the bars. You can take a shower when you want, make 15-minute phone calls, play cards with other inmates, or just take delight in knowing you are not confined to a cell. You can also go outside for a daily hour of recreation if you like. That takes place between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Say YES to rec! It’s totally worth doing! The fresh air and sunlight will lift your spirits, and the exercise will help deal with the backaches and hip problems you might get from too many hours on a hard bunk.

If it’s cold outside, you will be given a coat for rec.

Almost all the women out on rec walk endless circuits around the asphalt yard and converse with each other. Sort of like open skate in an ice rink, minus the skates. The other option is shooting hoops with a basketball.

How do you sleep in jail?

The lights are on all night—albeit dimmed—but you can fold up a clean t-shirt or towel to use as a blindfold. You are not allowed to cover your entire head or put your head under your covers.

If you don’t get a pillow, request one right away using the inmate request forms that are by the phone. Meanwhile, use a stack of folded t-shirts inside your pillowcase to stand in for a pillow.

You can make earplugs out of toilet paper.

The television gets turned off at 10 p.m. and goes back on again sometime after 8 a.m.

What about visitors?

The visitation schedule is Monday/Wednesday/Friday from 2:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. (See Chemung County Jail website for details.) You get one visit on each of those days, but up to two visitors can come at a time. Only one of the two visitors can be a child, and the child must have a birth certificate to get in. (A passport won’t do.) You are limited to two hour-long visits per week.

A visit lasts for an hour. It’s best to arrange these in advance, so that you don’t end up with competing friends who want to visit you. Colleen Boland, Doug Couchon, and Margie Rodgers all live in Elmira and will happily visit any We Are Seneca Lake Defender incarcerated in Chemung who might not otherwise have someone available to pay a visit.

Note that visitors cannot bring you anything, nor can you give them anything.

When you are finished with your visit, you will be strip-searched—this is the only time strip searches happen—which involves bending over and spreading buttocks. There are no cavity searches, however. The guard is female, and she stands on the opposite end of the room. No one touches you during a strip search. Our experience is that the strip search is mostly a formality, and the guards are as respectful and understanding as possible.

Visits with attorneys are done outside of regular visiting hours. During attorney visits, you can pass papers back and forth, which is how Sandra got her handwritten jailhouse essays out to the world.

How do you make phone calls from the cellblock?

The recipient of your phone call must use a credit card to deposit money in an account. This should be arranged in advance. (See Chemung County Jail website for details.)

Each phone call can be no longer than 15 minutes.

Remember, before going to jail, write the phone numbers of anyone that you might want to call while in jail on the skin on the inside of your upper arm. You will thus always have those numbers with you while standing at the phone.

How’s the food?

Awful. Really awful. Lots of grayish baloney, greenish hot dogs, and white bread. The best meal is breakfast.

Sandra has basically lived on two cartons of milk per day and one serving of cereal in the morning.

But you are only going to be here for a week. Just drink a lot of water and consider it a seven-day cleanse.

Also, if you give your food away to other inmates, you will make friends. (“Anyone want my goulash?”)

What are the other inmates like?

Most women in the Chemung County Jail are there because of probation violations and drug charges. Some are going through drug and alcohol withdrawal. Almost all are single mothers, and almost all are impoverished. Some have long-standing grudges against fellow inmates, but, since you have nothing to do with these disputes, they will treat you with kindness and curiosity. They will respect and understand your decision to fight the gas storage project.

There is a lot of cross-talk between cells, some of it loud. Some women also shout down the heating vents in order to communicate with inmates in different cellblocks, although this is a violation of the rules.

The violent and non-compliant inmates, both male and female, are dressed in black and white stripes rather than orange and are housed separately. They are not in your cellblock. You will see them only in the visitors’ room or in the hallway while they are being escorted from one part of the jail to another.

Any other tips for survival?

When a C.O. is escorting you to rec, to the visitors’ room, or to medical, you will be expected to walk in front of him or her and stay to the right side. While waiting for a door to be unlocked, you stand with your back against the wall. A C.O. never wants you to stand behind them or beside them. Never, ever touch a C.O., even out of empathy.

Don’t save food in your cell for later—not even cartons of milk, salt and pepper, or the ubiquitous Kool-aid packets. They will be considered contraband if discovered in a cell search. Other inmates will squirrel things away for later consumption, but you should make sure all food and condiments go back out with your tray. You don’t want to lose good behavior days over a packet of ketchup.

Make sure your sweatshirt is UNDER your jumpsuit, not over.

Remember that once your bed is made at 7 a.m., you can’t get back under the covers until after the 10 p.m. count.

Do not go into another inmate’s cell for any reason.

Stay active. Every time you hear the church bells chime the hour, hop off your bunk and jog in place, do push-ups against the bars, go for some yoga poses, swing your arms and legs.

Turned upside down, your laundry basket makes a good writing table, a stool for sitting, or a bedside night table.

Ask friends to send you mail on the first day of your incarceration only. As it is, you won’t be getting that mail, which is all opened and read, until your sentence is almost done, and all the undelivered mail will just get returned.