Coffee in Jail

THERE IS NO COFFEE in the Chemung County Jail.

There used to be coffee. Also parenting classes, drug counseling, and the opportunity to purchase, from the jailhouse commissary, packages of new underwear — as a private alternative to the holey, bloodstained, ratty-ass drawers that are standard issue.

But the new sheriff put a stop to all that. So said the women of cellblock 5D at about six-thirty a.m.

I myself had become a woman of cellblock 5D at about three-thirty a.m., so the coffee situation caught my attention. The fact that I found it more alarming than the underwear situation says something about me that my mother would not find admirable.

The Chemung County Jail is located in Elmira, which is situated wholly within the Chemung River floodplain along New York’s border with Pennsylvania. Elmira was once the writing home of Mark Twain — here was a fact to inspire — but the city is otherwise most famous for repeated floods and for its notorious prison camp: fully one-quarter of the twelve thousand captured Confederate soldiers that were held as inmates in “Hellmira” died here during the final months of the Civil War. Presumably not from unspeakable underwear.

My fellow inmates looked in at me through the bars of my cell and continued their briefing:

Until tested for tuberculosis, all incoming prisoners are classified as “keep-lock,” which is to say, they have to remain inside their cells. The TB test takes forty-eight hours to administer and read, but medical personnel are not always available. (Budget cuts, baby.) Thus, new admits can end up in 24/7 keep-lock for up to fifteen business days. Pursuant to 7013.8 (b) of 9NYRDD.

Fifteen days was the entire length of my sentence.

Look, said an inmate named Nadine. We’ll be bringing you meals and stuff. What do you need?

I blinked through a coffeeless stupor.

Some paper. A pencil. The Bible. Thanks so much.

THERE ARE NO CLOCKS in the Chemung County Jail. And the fluorescent lights stay on all night.

And so time was emancipated. In my six-by-seven-foot cell, time escaped and spilled over everything. It ran wild and unmetered. I breathed time into my lungs. I ate time. I read time. Whatever I was doing, I was doing time.

I was drunk with it, rich with it. I had enough of it. For once.

Occasionally, I heard church bells and counted the hours.

A more reliable timekeeper was the window across the cellblock, separated from me by two catwalks and two rows of bars. Its glass had been painted over, and I could not see beyond it to the outside world. And yet, each evening, soon after the dinner trays were collected, the April light pushed through the panes, paint and all, and a diffuse ray of sun entered my cell. So scattered, it wasn’t really a ray. It was an echo of light. A whisper of light. A cloud of light.

Its daily arrival was like grace itself. So, pay attention, Steingraber. I watched hard as the light glided across the near wall of my cell (where the bunk was attached) to the back wall (burnishing the steel toilet and sink) and then slid along the blank far wall (also steel and painted with beige enamel).

One evening, I placed my body inside this numinous spotlight and moved with it.

It was while standing against the illuminated far wall that I noticed the word. Just like that, I saw it.

I was staring at a letter E — there was no mistaking it — and there was another E just to the left of the first one and other different letters to the left of those. Each letter was about eight inches high, not drawn or engraved but somehow pressed into the steel wall itself. Without the faint play of sunlight, I would never have noticed them.

I had discovered a petroglyph. A message written in invisible ink. I ran my fingers over each indented letter. I read it by Braille.

The word was not about God.

The word was not about fornication.

The word was COFFEE. No kidding.

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.

To wit: you leave the condom in the drawer, and twelve years later your presence is required at a pep band performance in a middle school gymnasium. Which the property taxes on your mortgaged house help to pay for. The pep band concert, while charming, is the exact opposite of condomless sex. And while there is a clear causal connection between A and B, you can’t exactly call it a plan.

Similarly, you might have strong spiritual and biological feelings about drinking water and the possible folly of storing explosive hydrocarbon gases from fracking operations next to and beneath it. And because of previous decisions (i.e., condomless sex), you might now have a child who depends on that water, and the air above it, and who spends summer nights at a 4-H camp near the railroad tracks along which said explosive gases are to be transported. And even though you’ve testified and written letters and submitted expert comments, the company might go on violating environmental laws, polluting the lake, blithely paying fines, and planning expansions.

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.

The letter from the pep band percussionist said, “Mom, I’m really popular on account of you being arrested.”

Nadine and the others laughed. You gangsta mama now.

During keep-lock days, my bunk was my desk. I composed sentences while kneeling on the cement floor, in an attitude of prayer. Behind me, the word COFFEE stood in for the real thing. Its author inspired me. The light that revealed the word inspired me.

Who? Why? How?

Keep writing. You have time.

ON THE SIXTH DAY, I was released from keep-lock. Which meant, between the hours of six-thirty a.m. and nine-thirty p.m., I could saunter up and down the catwalk and perch on the bolted down stools attached to the far row of bars. I could make collect phone calls. I could take a shower at will.

Nadine said, Let’s celebrate. How about a cup of coffee?

By which she meant black, lukewarm, instant decaf. Packets of Sanka were the sole form of coffee available from the commissary, and they came at a price-gouging cost. She was offering me what little she had, doing the best she could. Which is the most that any of us can aspire to do in our efforts to make the world right.

I said yes.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. Seneca Lake is fantastic but suffering. It’s still receiving illegal discharges from Inergy. What’s worse, that there are legal limits or that this company exceeds them? It also receives far to much runoff from non-organic agriculture. People are still working to keep the salt caverns below it from storing liquified gas because they have considered what will go wrong and to them the consequences won’t just be a financial loss, just part of doing business.
    An event happening Labor Day Weekend will celebrate the lake, have lots of great music and promote plans for sustainable, non-destructive ways to get our energy. Hopefully Sandra will speak again this year.

  2. This piece reminds of Kay Boyle’s essay, “Report from Lock-Up” (published in Boyle’s “These Words That Must Be Said”). Like Steingraber, Boyle was arrested for protesting. While Steingraber is mostly alone in her cell, Boyle is locked up with a couple of different women. Both writers give us an interesting look at what political conviction earns an American.

  3. Intelligent, moving…and funny.
    I really enjoyed this piece and I admire the author no end.

  4. Lovely, intelligent metaphor. Sweet read over…a cuppa joe. Thanks!

  5. My family came from Finland around 1897 and settled in Chemung County..I understand Sandra’s husband is ill and there is a fund we can contribute to…anyone know about this?

  6. Beautifully written. Sandra knows how to make jail time sound poetic. Thank you for doing time to bring attention to Seneca Lake. May we all benefit.

  7. Sandra is not only a great speaker and writer, she stands with strong women throughout history who refused to capitulate to the powers that be. Why is it when good people do the right thing they end up incarcerated? Thank you, Sandra, for caring so much for our world that you are willing to put your body on the line. Hope we’ll hear more about Sandra’s advocacy for a healthy environment.

  8. Thank you Sandra, for your courage. May others be so inspired by your efforts to stand for what is right.

  9. For those who follow what is happening on Seneca Lake, there was a recent 2.0 earthquake on the western shore, 12 miles from the gas storage site. It was dismissed as being “small”, yet nevertheless, it happened! The gas storage facility said “there are no faults” around the lake. For more information, go to This organization is tirelessly working to ban LPG on our beautiful lake.

  10. I went with my mother to this discussion at the local library about the Elmira prison during the civil war. the speaker prepared a slideshow and showed pictures of soilders in the prison, if you could recognize them, they were skeletons. they couldn’t even walk by themselves, it both disgusted and intruiged me. it made me want to learn more, and i did and the next day i got a 100 on my project because of it

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