Monday, April 22, 2013

Letter from Chemung County Jail

By Zerline Hughes

Criminal justice reform work is not usually synonymous with that of environmental reform but when I caught site of a piece today, I was taken aback.

Now, I'm not the most environmental person. I don't have three separate trash receptacles in my home but I teach my children to not toss trash out of the car window. We practice keeping our community clean and are often involved with community clean ups in our Washington, DC neighborhood where our neighbors are not so invested in such things. I don't do much more, though.
Image part of a children's climate change competition.

So, when Googling for "Earth Day" and "prison" issues, I happened upon this Ithaca Journal submission written by Ithaca-area activist and professor, Dr. Sandra Steingraber. She and 11 others, dubbed the Seneca Lake 12, were protesting fracking - drilling and injecting fluid into the ground to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside - at Inergy, natural gas storage facility. Because they were trespassing, Dr. Steingraber was one of the protesters arrested and sentenced to pay a fine or serve 15 days in jail in the Chemung County Jail in Elmira, NY. She opted for the latter.

"In my field of environmental health, the word trespass has meaning," said Dr. Steingraber in a press statement. "Toxic trespass refers to involuntary human exposure to a chemical or other pollutant. It is a contamination without consent."

Steingraber writes about her experiences in the Chemung County Jail in Elmira. She observes a woman being denied healthcare after she breaks a tooth, in need of pain medication and dental assistance. She writes about being unable to join the rest of the prison population because she must first wait to get a tuberculosis test. As a result, her 24-hour lock down turns into two-day solitude. 

"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," she writes in her letter published in the media and Facebook.

Today,  she's in jail. Based on her priorities and principles. "Celebrating" Earth Day. What are your criminal justice priorities and principles?

Zerline is JPI's Director of Communications.

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