Sandra Steingraber’s Letters from Prison

When we learned that Orion columnist Sandra Steingraber was being held in New York’s Chemung County Jail, we had a feeling it might be a while before we saw a draft of her next column. We assumed that, being in prison, she might have priorities other than writing, or, at the very least, that she wouldn’t have access to a computer on which to write.

Well, we were wrong on both counts. While it’s true that Sandra didn’t have access to a computer, she did manage to get hold of a pencil and paper—and with them she put together some of the most powerful and morally urgent writing we’ve seen all year.

Here’s an excerpt from “Coffee in Jail,” Sandra’s column in the September/October 2013 issue of Orion (the column that did arrive, after all):

Civil disobedience is like planned parenthood. The second word in the phrase doesn’t exactly align with the first one.

You search your conscience. You reach a decision. You make preparations. You talk about your decision and your preparations in meaningful ways to all concerned. And then comes the time for action.

You leave the condom in the drawer.

Or you refuse the deputy’s third order to get off the driveway. (The one owned by the nation’s largest natural-gas storage and transport company. The one the truck with the massive drill head strapped to its flatbed wants to drive on. Right now.)

Either way, where you end up bears little resemblance to the circumstances that kicked it off.

And so, because you believe strongly in the sanctity of water and loons and the beauty of the boy who plays percussion in the pep band (because he broke his jaw in a bicycle accident, he had to give up the trumpet), here you are in cellblock 5D, far removed from lakes and loons and pep bands. The new skill you have acquired for Earth Day is how to safely descend a set of stairs in ankle manacles and handcuffs.

Sandra, who’s a member of the Seneca Lake 12, a group of neighbors who trespassed at a natural gas compressor station in New York last spring, completed ten days of a fifteen-day prison sentence in April.

Her arrest came after many months of activism and public conversation about the threat of hydrofracking, a topic that she’s addressed passionately and repeatedly in the pages of Orion. Likewise, “Coffee in Jail” emerged after a series of letters from prison—some of which have appeared online in various forms, and all of which were wrestled onto the page with a stubby prison golf pencil.

Here, below, we share with you two of those original letters—click to enlarge:

Read the rest of Sandra’s letters from prison, and learn more about the effort to protect New York’s Finger Lakes from hydrofracking, at


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