Author: raineyreitman

Toilet paper, Tampons, and Phone Calls: Affording Prison in California

An interview with a recently released prisoner on the financial burdens associated with imprisonment

KT was incarcerated in California for one year over charges related to fraud. She is a friend of mine, but I did not find out she was in prison until she had served more than half of her sentence. When I learned she was incarcerated, I reached out to her family to offer support and began visiting her every week for her last couple months in prison. She was held in Dublin FCI, just a few miles from my house but very far from her home in Southern California.

In communicating with KT, I was struck by the huge impact of prison costs on not just KT’s life, but on her whole family. Seemingly small expenses in prison mounted and became burdensome for her wife and eventually created major rifts between family members, with ramifications that continued after KT left prison.

This interview was conducted 19 days after KT was released in early December, 2017.

RR: Before prison, you were the primary breadwinner in your house, is that right? So in effect, your imprisonment not only cost your family the primary income, but also cost additional money. What was that like for your wife?

KT: So before prison, I was the primary breadwinner. When I went to prison, it was a huge financial struggle for Chrissy. I was in charge of the rent and all of our basic bills, like gas, electricity, water, the phones, things like that. When I went to prison, all of that responsibility fell 100% on Chrissy. That was really, really difficult. Because I knew she wouldn’t be able to afford that, and she knew she would not be able to afford that.

So immediately the first thing she did was she had to look for another apartment, because she knew she would not be able to afford even the next month’s rent. So first it’s the hassle of looking for an apartment in LA, and they go instantly. When she did find an affordable apartment —it’s a very small studio, it’s like 280 square feet, it’s really small—she had to get rid of all the furniture, and she had to box up all of my clothes, my toiletries, things she wouldn’t be able to put in the small studio and store it with my siblings.

And she also had to break the lease, so there was a fine on that. And right away my license was suspended, so she had to pay registration for my car to keep my car, insurance. And then she had to take on all of the daily responsibilities of now living on your own —gas, electric. And then the cost of moving, which was expensive. She had to make sure she wasn’t working the first couple weeks while she was doing this, so it was a loss of work.

RR: I contacted your family in September, and one of the first things I asked was if there was any way I could help. And the message I got back was (and I’m just going to read this message from your wife): “Yes it has been an insanely hard year.  Whatever you want to do to help would be amazing.  So it’s prob not a surprise to you but [KT]’s  family isn’t helping at all and I have been the only one putting any money on her books. They have to pay for toilet paper and tampons, nothing is free. This put me in a horrible financial situation and I asked [KT]’s family if they could put $5 or $10 bucks on her books and no one was willing. So it’s been super difficult.” I ended up sending you money to cover the last few months in prison, and it ended up really adding up — I sent well over $100/month, which surprised me. I thought many families would struggle to come up with that kind of money.

Can you tell me a bit about the costs of prison. On a typical week, what would your expenses look like?

KT: What I bought commonly—from the commissary sheet—would include laundry detergent. I got Ocean Bursts which was $1.30, the cheapest one.

I also bought deodorant. Which was Dial, which was $1.45.  Once a month, I’d have to buy shampoo and conditioner. I’d have to buy toothpaste. Before November, I’d have to buy tampons and pads, and that was pretty expensive. So that was the basic hygiene. Of course, every now and again, I’d have to buy a thing, but it wasn’t on a monthly basis. For example, stamps and vitamins, which would include daily vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, which I thought was important because there was no nutritional food in prison. Lip balm, bandaids, things you don’t need every week, but you should have in your locker. I get eczema so there’s hydrocortisone cream you can buy, and I ended up getting the medicated stuff because mine was pretty bad.

Also a lot of the women there got really bad migraines. I was also buying aspirin on the regular, and there was also ibuprofen you could buy. Allergy pills, because allergies were really bad. And then soap.

As far as food items, I bought peanut butter on the regular because it’s filling and had protein in it, and I had the vegetarian diet. And then there was like granola bars, protein bars, coffee. There were the little seaweed packs.

They issue you your khakis and they give you like four outfits, four button down shirts and four pants, as well as boots. They issue you two bras, four pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, and a jacket. As far as the clothes I bought, it’s called your greys, your sweat outfits, which is what you work out in and stuff. I had one pair of sweatpants, one pair of shorts, two t-shirts, and then because it gets godawful cold in Dublin I bought a beanie and a scarf.

I would say for just one basic outfit, the t-shirt, sweatpants, the thermal undershirt, the long johns, it was about $100.

And it’s amazing how even the little items really add up. Basic hygiene. I was spending $20 a month on it. And when I had to buy something larger, like when I got out of the SHU, it was more.  

RR: Did it cost money to send emails, letters, or talk on the phone?

KT: Phone calls and emails were definitely the biggest expense for me, but I had to do it.

We had to communicate, and it’s not free to communicate in prison. For $2, I got 40 minutes of email. And that goes by really quick. So I was easily spending $10/month, I mean easily, just on emails.

Also phone calls are $3.10 for fifteen minutes if you have a long distance phone number. In Dublin, the local number was 925, so if you were anything but 925 it was $3.10 for fifteen minutes. Chrissy ended up purchasing a 925 number so that I could make calls for 90 cents a minute. It was about $18 a month, but she didn’t even know about that for the first month. The initial cost was…a lot.

I was allotted 300 minutes a month, or 20 fifteen minute phone calls, and the first month, December, they give you 400 minutes a month. So the first month, it was easily, $50-$60. Between phone calls and emails, that was a good $100 right there.

Chrissy was able to put $30, $40, sometimes she could only do $20 on my books. And I made sure pretty much all of that went to phone calls and emails. Because to me, the most important thing was to be able to communicate with her. So, there were a few times I was unable to call her or email her because I didn’t have the money for it.

RR: Did that impact how often you spoke to your family?

KT: It definitely impacted how I talked to my family. Talking to my wife was the most important thing to me. It also impacted the secondary group, my family. The number one impact was the lack of minutes, since you are only allowed 20 fifteen minute phone calls, and that meant only 20 days out of the month I could make a call. We got on a schedule of… I would call her two days in a row, then take a day off. And sometimes something major would happen, and I would call her twice in a day, and then I would have to take two days off.

RR: You worked in prison. Can you talk about how much money you made working, and was that typical for a prison job?

KT: Every single prisoner has to work. You are not allowed to not work. Even if you are nine months pregnant, and a lot of women were, you still had to hold a job.

My job was called UNICOR. And UNICOR is the highest paying job in prison. So it’s great if you don’t really receive financial help, or if it’s low financial help. UNICOR varies from prison to prison on what they do. But at Dublin, it was telemarketing. So, my job was a telemarketer, and I would do a 40 hour work week. From 6:45 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon, with a 45 minute lunch break.

There’s five different levels of pay for UNICOR, and the level of pay is based only on your time there, not how well you do. You start at a level five, which is 13 cents an hour. You could go up to a level one, which means you would have to be there for over a year. Level ones make just over $1 an hour. I think it’s $1.06.

If you don’t have a GED or a high school diploma, the highest level you can go is a level four, which is 26 cents an hour.

The prison does encourage you to get a GED because of that, and GED classes are free.

I started at level five, after two months I was bumped to a level four, and then after three months I was bumped to a level three. That was 39 cents an hour. I started in February. My last month, I was at 69 cents an hour.

But UNICOR can cut your hours at any point in time… They cut your hours every summer and every winter, so in the months of June and July, because I was one of the better agents, I was getting more of the full time hours, but there were weeks I was only working 25-30 hours. My last few weeks at Dublin, I was working only 25 hours. Or they let a lot of the full time people go [in summer and winter]. Luckily, I was never let go.

In the beginning, my paychecks were about $15 a month.  A typical paycheck for me toward the end of my incarceration was about $30/month

RR: And you have a restitution, is that right? How much is that, and how did that affect your paycheck?

KT: My restitution is like a total of $71,900. For anybody who has to pay restitution, they’ll take 50% of your paycheck. So for me, when I started to “make more money” at UNICOR, I didn’t necessarily see that money. So when I get to the level three, for example, and my paychecks were higher, my gross pay was $60-$80, but I would only be bringing home the $30, and that was with the 50% restitution.

RR: Did you pay taxes? Anything else come out of your paycheck?

KT: No, no taxes, no Social Security. It was nothing government was taken out.

Now if you don’t owe restitution, they’ll take $25/quarter if you owe court fees. And this is huge, because most people, it doesn’t matter what your crime is, you have to pay court fees. Unless the judge waives it, which they never do. And it’s $100 per charge.

And when you first get to prison, there are a lot of initial things you have to buy—like nail clippers, tweezers, things you don’t really think about and you only need to buy once, but you need it right away. And you have to buy a lock. A lock is $6.50 and then they raised it to $7.10 and you have to buy it right away, because women will steal your shit. One hundred percent. So you have to keep your stuff locked. They also steal stuff from the dryers. So you have to sit with your laundry or it’ll be stolen. So, the court fees are the first thing you have to pay, but it’s really hard for a new inmate to come in with all these initial things you have to pay, and they hit your paycheck right away for $25.

And again, I had the highest paying job. There were close to 300 women who worked at UNICOR. But there were 1,000 women at the prison. So that left 700 women who didn’t work at UNICOR. The other prison jobs didn’t make nearly the $30/month or more if you didn’t have restitution. A typical prison job you are paid around $20/month. A $20/month job would be like a kitchen, an orderly at the housing unit is like $10/month. All of these women are 40 hours a week. If you work the yard, which is like 20 hours a week, you make like $4 a month.

And there were also goose herders. They have a really bad geese problem. So they would take a stick and herd the geese nicely to safe areas on the perimeter of the prison so they weren’t there at the chow hall or walking into buildings. And they made $5/month for 20 hours a week.

Even if you are making $4, $5, $20 a month, you still obligated to pay the $25 quarterly. So a lot of women wouldn’t be making $25 a quarter for court fees. They don’t tell you what day the money is coming out, they just tell you that you need to keep $25 on the books.

If you don’t have the $25 when they go to take the money out of your books, you get punished. You lose your room, and you have to move into what’s called the A-O rooms, which is where the new inmates go. A-O rooms are notorious for having your items stolen, because it’s all new women coming in and out on a daily basis, you get new roommates every day. A-O rooms are loud, they stink. You really don’t want to be in an A-O room.  

These women are fresh off the bus. A huge problem with fresh off the bus inmates is lice and skin diseases like scabies, so that’s a huge risk. A lot of these women were homeless or prostitutes. So you wouldn’t want to lose your room.

And if it was an ongoing issue, you could be sent to the SHU.

RR: That’s solitary?

KT: Yes, Special Housing Unit. That’s when you’re in solitary confinement. That wasn’t in print anywhere, but it could happen.

Or you could get a shot. A shot could vary, but usually what it meant was a loss of phone or email privileges, and it could be anywhere from two weeks or three months or six months, no phone calls or emails to family and friends. Or you could lose commissary for anywhere from two weeks to three months or six months.

RR: And you were put in the SHU once?

KT: Yes. I did. For eight days. Which is a very low amount of time for most people.

RR: How was it?

KT: How was it? Ah, boring.

When you get sent to the SHU, you get sent right away. It’s not like you get to go to your room, pack your stuff, put on your comfortable stuff. It’s the guards, the COs, who pack your stuff from your locker.

First of all, they will throw away all food items. Because they don’t know how long you’ll be in the SHU. There are women that could be in there for six months. They’ll throw away personal items. They threw away photos I had. I had books in the locker. I had personal books in my locker from friends, and those were all taken. Some paperwork….legal paperwork, those they can’t throw away, but they’ll throw away your papers.

And the COs don’t give a flying fuck about your personal items. So many times, it’s very common, that when you get sent to the SHU, sometimes your clothes will be thrown away. Any open hygiene items, a lot of that will be thrown away, aspirin bottles, pills like vitamins.

Also a lot of times, when the officers are going to pack out an inmate, they put all your stuff in a military backpack, and sometimes it takes two to three backpacks to pack out your stuff. So when the COs unlock your locker and they are called to do something else, they have to leave your locker. And they leave your locker unattended—which happens most of the time—the women are vultures, they’ll come in and steal all your stuff. I had a t-shirt taken, I had my socks taken, I had my towels taken. Things that should have been packed were taken. It was very common for women to have their tennis shoes taken. And if they had kept any hygiene products outside of their locker, that was taken. I had my soap taken, my toothpaste. When I came out of the SHU, I had to rebuy all of those items. My tweezers were taken.

RR: You were held in three different prisons. One in San Diego, one in Las Vegas, and then finally in Dublin. Was there a period of time when you didn’t have access to money? What was that like?

KT: Yes. When you move jails or prisons, typically your money is supposed to move with you. That doesn’t always happen. When I was in San Diego, and I left San Diego, I had some money in my books. I think I had $13 on my books. Instead of being moved to Vegas, which was only supposed to be a temporary place, we were only supposed to be there for three days, we ended up being in Vegas for three weeks, and it was because weather conditions in Oakland were very, very bad. It was raining hardcore and we had to take a very small plane. And then there were plane problems. My money was transferred from San Diego directly to Dublin. So I had no money in Vegas. So I was unable to make phone calls, I had no telephone access and no email access.

It was really hard because I was unable to communicate with Chrissy what was happening. For security purposes, when they transfer an inmate, they don’t tell the inmate they are going to be transferred. They cut off your phone and email privileges 24 hours before you get transferred. And you know you are going to be transferred because you go to make a phone call or send an email, and your email is cut off.

They don’t tell the inmate that you’re going to be transferred or where you are going. I didn’t know if I was going to go to Dublin or Texas or where.

When I first got to Vegas, I was allowed one three minute phone call to Chrissy, just to let her know where I was. All calls are monitored, so there was a woman sitting next to me. I told her, “Hey I’m in Vegas, I don’t have access to email or phone calls.”

That was scary. Especially being…I had only been locked up for two weeks at that point. So I really needed to communicate what was happening, did you find an apartment, what’s happening on your end?

So I had three minutes. And she didn’t know where I was going. For all she knew I could have ended up in Connecticut.

Nor could I buy any commissary items. And the commissary items I had in San Diego –aspirin, stuff like that — I didn’t have.

In Vegas, they provided you with very basic, hotel sample sizes of shampoo, a little thing of soap, a little razor. I think that’s all they had for you. I think you were given that once every five days. So I was able to get on, but I didn’t have access to anything like aspirin, contact solution, cough drops, none of that is free.

RR: Do you have any idea what happens to people in prison who don’t have friends or family to put money on their books?

KT: What you can do if you don’t have friends or family putting money on your books, the easiest way to get money for your basic hygiene is to have a hustle. It’s against prison rules to have a hustle, but pretty much everybody has to do it. You can offer to wash and iron people’s clothes for $10-$15 a month. Since you can’t get money from them, you would then just give them a bill, a list of commissary items that equal that much money. However, again, this is not allowed, and if you’re caught, you can get a shot or go to the SHU.

A lot of women would sell their medications. A lot of times they would “cheek” their medications, that was a very common hustle. There are two guards that watch you. You have to open your mouth to show you swallowed it, but they would hide it in their cheek and then sell it to other inmates.

Kitchen workers had the best hustle because they would steal straight from the kitchen. They would steal vegetables, whole onions, peppers, meat, eggs. And for example, eggs went for $1 an egg. And they would sell these items to the women in the housing units. But if you are caught you are fired and you are either given a shot or go to the SHU depending on how bad it is. So it was a risk.

I had a hustle. I had gotten boost bars, which are anxiety pills, but I was able to sell four pills for a dollar. I also would gather apples [from the kitchen]. I used to hide about 12 apples at a time in my clothes, in my jacket, and I could sell four for a dollar. There were two girls that liked the cereal. So they each gave me a really big bag, and I would fill the bag with cereal. So I would go around and collect cereal from the other women so I could fill these bags. A bag would last two weeks and I would get $4 a bag. I was never caught with the cereal but I was caught once with the apples, and I had to do extra duty, which was gather all the trash in the prison. But that was a really good thing because I should have gotten a shot.

RR: So is it correct that you couldn’t use a hustle to get money on your phone or email accounts?

KT: Correct. Because there was no cash involved, none of this could go on phone or email. So you could only get commissary items through the hustle.

RR: So it’s likely that people who didn’t have friends and family with enough extra money to put money on their books, couldn’t talk to people much on the outside?

KT: Correct, absolutely. Except maybe letters, since you could get envelopes and notebooks from the commissary.

RR: One of the things your wife mentioned was lack of access to tampons or toilet paper. Can you explain that?

KT: So, at Dublin, they didn’t provide feminine hygiene, nor did they provide toilet paper or any thing. You were allowed to get toilet paper, pads, a little thing of laundry detergent, and an all purpose soap for shampoo or body wash or whatever and two stamped envelopes, if you were indigent. Dublin’s classification of indigent was if you have less than $3 on your books for three consecutive months. So, if at any point in time you had $3.10, you were not considered indigent. That’s the only time you received anything for free, except when you first got to Dublin, you got a sample size soap, a little thing of laundry detergent for one wash, ten pads, and two rolls of toilet paper, and a little thing of toothpaste and a little toothbrush, like an inch tall, and the bristles fall off after two weeks. So you pretty much have to buy everything right away.

Toilet paper was $5.85 for a pack of twelve, and tampons were $4.95 at first for a box of twenty. Pads were $9.80 for a pack of thirty. Now mind you, this is really shit quality tampons and pads…I don’t have a strong flow, but typically I’d have to wear a tampon and a pad at the same time. So you ran through it fairly quickly.

In August, maybe August 31st, they passed a law where feminine hygiene and toilet paper was given to you for free. They had to provide it for free. But they only provide thirty of a particular feminine hygiene item a month, whether tampons, pads, or pantiliners. Although that was passed in August, we didn’t get our first shipment of the free items until November. So during that period of time, they raised the prices on tampons and pads on commissary. And we had to purchase them because they hadn’t provided us the free ones yet. So it was a total scam.

RR: And I realize this is a sensitive issue, but I understand these financial issues contributed to a rift between you and some of your family members. Can you talk about that a little, and about how it feels to ask for money from people on the outside?

KT: Pretty much the only way to survive is getting financial help from family and friends. Even if you have a “high paying” job like I do, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed the hours. So you have to have financial help from family or friends. In my particular case, Chrissy was, for the bulk of my imprisonment, my consistent money source.

But because finances were difficult for her, she was only able to put $15-$30 a month on my books, and the bulk of that went to phone calls and emails, so we could keep up communications.

I don’t have the kind of family where we ask for money. It’s kind of taboo in my family. I’ve never had the luxury of having my parents pay my credit card bills, or financial assistance for college, or financial assistance to get a car. I’ve been financially responsible for myself since I moved out of my parents’ house. So in my particular case, when shit hit the fan, Chrissy reached out to my immediate family members to be like hey this is what’s going on, I’m financially strapped, can you guys help? She didn’t ask for anything for herself. She told them how to do it [put money on the prison books].

When I first got locked up, my one sister put $30 on my books, my brother put $50 on my books. But in the course of the months going on, it started to dwindled. By June, July, I hadn’t had any money put on my books. So Chrissy reached out. I was really low on hygiene. I was out of deodorant, I was running really low on tooth paste, my shampoo and conditioner was going to be over soon. I was out of bar soap. So I was like, I really need help. So Chrissy asked if each family member could give $5-10. And asking for financial assistance is taboo in my family. It was ill received.

A lot of family members were like, why don’t you do it? Pretty much Chrissy asking for that had my whole family stop giving me money altogether. For the remaining  six months, I didn’t receive a penny from the rest of my family. For certain by June, I didn’t get any money from anybody, except Chrissy.

RR: And that led to a falling out?

KT: It did lead to a falling out with my family. It led to a huge falling out. That simple request to help me out. It led to my Dad saying that when he was in prison 30 years ago, we didn’t have to buy all this stuff. But mind you, my Dad was in prison 30 years ago, and he was receiving financial assistance on a monthly basis from his friends.

And different prisons have different rules. In Carswell in Texas, all women were given hygiene every two weeks, I was told. All women get shampoo, bar soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, feminine hygiene. I was told on a biweekly basis, this was given to all women.

So then there was a lot of lies being told, a lot of things being said behind my back, a lot of things being said about Chrissy. That simple request kind of catapulted more issues to be discussed between family members. Which led to a falling out.

RR: And that continues, even now after prison?

KT: Yes. That continues

Names pseudonymized and interview edited lightly for length.

Midweek Camping

I started new project this month: sleeping outside one night a week.

It works like this: I come to work extra early, and then I feel less guilty about heading out at 4:30 or 5. I fight through the San Francisco traffic until I reach a wilderness permit station, pick up the permit that’s waiting for me in a box out front for latecomers, then head out to a campsite. I stop on the way and buy a veggie wrap, throw it in my backpack, then park at a trailhead, strap on my pack, and hike out. I pass people on the trails, and they eye my backpack. I assemble the tent, devour half a wrap, let the sun set all around me, zip away the world and stare up through the bug netting at the endless stars or the mist or the clouds or the hillsides. I wake before 6, and I run or I don’t run, and I’m back in the office by 8 AM, slipping into the shower on the first floor, settled in my office chair before 9.

The idea is to get wilderness into my life, in small bits and pieces, whenever I can.

And maybe the real goal is about reclaiming my life. I don’t want my life outside to be something I dream about in between meetings for weeks or months, then burn through in a few brief vacation days. I look up sometimes and realize weeks have gone by and I didn’t do anything except work and commute and sleep. I want to start to close the gap between epic backpacking adventures and sipping decaf while I scroll through emails in the morning in a windowless office.

Instead, I am making living outside a default setting. It’s something I build into my life every week, until throwing together a camping trip doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore.

Because it’s not a big deal. I need a sleeping bag, a tent (sometimes), a sleeping pad, a water bottle, and enough cash to buy a sandwich or burrito or slice of pizza. I often need to book ahead some sort of camping permit.

But that’s it. Everything else is optional. And I do love bringing the optional stuff—a Kindle, a headlamp, chapstick, something I can eat for breakfast, allergy meds, pajamas, a puffy jacket. But those are the easy afterthoughts, the niceties I can live without. I don’t really need them, and I’m always close enough to a store that swinging over is no big deal.

Weekday camping is often less crowded. It’s possible to roll up and find a first-come campsite, or book something if I plan a few days out. I can even book beautiful weekday campsites a few weeks out in places that book up months in advance on weekends.

When I have time, I’m going to write about some of the campsites I find in the larger San Francisco Bay Area, how to book them, and include a few photos. I’ll be putting them up on Instagram and this blog using the hashtag #MidweekCamping (yep, that’s a thing). And if you’re reading this and something here resonates with you, and you’d like to start making space for more wilderness in your own life, then I’d encourage you to also use the hashtag #MidweekCamping and send me photos over Instagram, and maybe together we can start a small movement.


Sierras in Deep Snow

Ignoring the strong warnings of the National Park Service—including my partner, who is a ranger for the Park—I organized an all-women backpacking trip to the Yosemite High Sierras for the weekend of July 4. Normally the Sierras are passable by early July, but record-setting snowpack this past winter meant many areas are still socked in with 6+ feet of snow and ice. Streams that are normally passable by now are violent, uncrossable rivers. Trails aren’t visible. And unfortunately, none of us had any experience backpacking in winter conditions on this scale.

The three of us walked, slid, postholed, stumbled, climbed, and—during one particularly difficult spot—crawled from the Cathedral Trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows to the top of Half Dome and then down to Yosemite Valley over the course of three days. It’s a trip that I believed would be on the easy side of moderate when I first planned it, a trip that would have been fine on a normal year, but which turned into the most physically challenging and dangerous backpacking trip of my life.

I got through it with the help of two brave women backpackers who persevered even in conditions far worse than we could have imagined. I learned a lot about how to cross sun-cupped snowy fields, search for firm footing on snow bridges over rivers, navigate the countless snow dunes of snow-choked forests, and stumble up and skid down icy mountainsides. I learned to find the ghost of footprints among the contours of ice-edged snow, and how to avoid the edges of trees and rocks, where snow collapses.

But more than that, I learned that friends who can keep their heads in a bad situation are the best gear you can possibly take into the backcountry in winter conditions. Well, tied for best with a GPS device and a set of crampons.

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On Solo Backpacking

Sometimes when I talk about backpacking, I pretend I’ve got it figured out. Yep, that’s me: expert backpacker. Ask me anything.

But I’m a huge fake, and the knowledge burns in my throat. Because for all the backpacking I’ve done over the years, I’ve never once in my life spent a night in the woods alone.

Nearly all of my trips to the backcountry have been with my partner. Who is, you know, a certified Wilderness First Responder and a Yosemite ranger. He literally teaches people—including me—how to backpack.

When we’ve backpacked, he tends to pick the route, figure out the resupply plan, consult maps and the weather forecast. He even looks up and identifies flowers and trees we’ll see on the trail, and he’ll provide little anecdotes about how John Muir felt about such-and-such type of pine tree and explain why these flowers don’t grow at lower elevations.

Basically, I’ve coasted along as the less experienced half of a backpacking couple. And it’s been lovely but I know I’m missing something huge. I want to learn what backpacking means to me when I’m totally on my own, when I wake up in the middle of the night in the woods or I’m looking down a stretch of trail I don’t recognize and I know to my bones that there’s nobody around to save me but me.

This summer, I’m leading an all-women crew on a three night backpacking trip in the Yosemite High Sierras which will include—with some luck—ascents up Half Dome and Clouds Rest. I planned to do a quick training trip with a friend last weekend, but a sudden bout of springtime flu meant she had to cancel.

So this was my chance: my first solo backpacking trip.

I picked a route I’ve day-hiked before: Snow Creek. Snow Creek is my favorite climb out of Yosemite Valley. The views are spectatular, and few Yosemite visitors venture up this path. When the Mist Trail and Yosemite Falls are choked with tourists, Snow Creek remains practically empty.



It’s also the steepest route out of the valley. The trail climbs 2,700 feet over 2.5 miles, and has over 100 switchbacks and sparse shade. It’s an exposed, sunny trail, which means it’s quite warm in the winter and brutal in the summer. I started a few miles away from the trailhead and planned to go a couple miles beyond the top of the switchbacks before I camped, so altogether I was going to hike 6 or 7 miles one direction, spend the night, then retrace my steps in the morning.

Hiking up Snow Creek was fun in a totally masochistic way. Even at 9 AM when I hit the switchbacks, it was hot as a Russian banya and incredibly steep. I’ve lightened my backpacking gear a lot since last year, but with water and a bear cannister and food, I was still hauling over 20 lbs.

The bugs were ferocious. Whenever I found even an inch of shade on the switchbacks, they swarmed in front of my face, divebombing my eyes and ears. I coated my legs and arms with DEET, dabbed it on my neck and ears, but I hate putting it on my face. So instead I twirled a bandana in front of my face occassionally, wishing I brought a head net (even though every time I’ve ever had a head net, I didn’t wear it). I bumped into a baby rattlesnake who found my bandana twirling scary, and we had a bit of a staring contest before he slithered off the side of the trail.

There’s something almost calming about climbing Snow Creek. My body fell into a steady rhythm and I zoned out. I don’t even remember what I was thinking about for most of the trip, only that I was just a couple hundred feet from the top when I suddenly needed to stop and rest for a moment, drink water, look around and feel amazement at the beauty of Half Dome staring back at me from across the Valley.



I ate lunch at the top of the switchbacks, watching the rushing creek and stretching out in the shade. My shirt was so soaked with sweat that sitting in the shade made me shiver, even though it was over 80 degrees out. Somehow, there were no mosquitoes by this rushing stream, and I stayed in that perfect cozy stretch of dirt by the creek for over an hour.

I finally scooted on a couple more miles until I got to the snowline, and then I set up camp next to a thundering waterfall. Last winter was one of the biggest snowfalls ever recorded in California, and that’s why the high elevation trails are still blanketed by snow. Meltwater has turned Yosemite streams and waterfalls into violent torrents. I found one flat campsite that wasn’t underwater, and set up even though I knew I was too close to the trail. I heated water, ate dinner out of a ziplock bag, and lay on a rock to read by the waterfall.

Years ago, I camped with my dog for a month. Not backpacking, just car camping. And even though I had a brave and somewhat ferocious-looking pit mix to cuddle next to me at night, I occassionally found myself freaked out by rustling outside of the tent at night, by being so far from anyone who knew me. It didn’t help that my mother had told me repeatedly while I was planning the trip that camping for a month was a sure fire way to get raped. (Thanks Mom.) And even though I’m more comfortable in the woods at night now, there have been plenty of times when I’ve backpacked with my partner and stepped out of my tent into the darkness and felt a sudden tension in my belly, a sharp moment of unreasonable and illogical fear.

I set up the tent and crawled in to read around 7 PM, and without realizing it I dozed off and didn’t wake up until almost 9 PM. I crawled out of my tent in the blue and grey twilight to snack and brush my teeth. I wedged my bear cannister tight under a log because the local Snow Creek bear is known for throwing cannisters off cliff edges to break them open. Then I slipped back into my tent and zipped away the outside world.



I wondered if I’d feel that twinge of fear, if the thought of being completely alone and miles from home in the dark with a curious bear wandering around would make me feel vulnerable. But it didn’t come, and I felt relieved that I wasn’t afraid. Mostly I felt very sleepy, and calm the way I only feel when I’ve been away from my work email long enough for the worries about work to loosen their stranglehold on me.

I slept through the night, and didn’t scramble out into the cold morning until 6 AM when sun was hitting the edge of the tent. I ate quickly, packed up, and hiked down the mountain.

I’ve spent so much time on relationships with other people—with coworkers, with my family, with my partner. I will drop everything I’m doing to help a stranger who calls me on the phone at work. I’m in the process of wedding planning now, and I spend hours wondering how to make dozens of far-flung relations and friends feel comfortable and welcome. But I don’t really spend any time on the relationship with myself.

And honestly, that relationship has always been a little rocky. Somewhat strained and judgemental on a better day, neglectful and resentful on worse days.



Solo backpacking is like couple’s therapy for the relationship with the self. It’s a way to walk quietly in the woods and practice just being okay. To practice every part of being okay. Not panicked, not anxious, not threatened. Not fearless, determined, generous, or impressive. Just quiet, plaid-shirt, baseball-cap, mud-coated sneakers okay. To find a little piece of my brain that isn’t anything other than fine, and let it stretch out and fill every part of me, and then walk and feel that for a few hours.

And also itchy, because the bugs are so bad this year.

I left my first solo backpacking trip without any great insights or adventures. No emotional highs or lows. Just a few hours with myself and no one else, aware of my own brain and body without any sense of needing to fix or justify anything.




Oh, and here are some photos from the Valley when I got back down, just because.








Portobello Mushrooms “Pizzas”

This recipes takes all of 45 seconds to prepare, then it just sits in the oven and comes out beautiful, tasty and healthy. So, I had to share. Recipe adapted from Life as a Strawberry.



  • 2 Portabello mushroom caps
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 3/4 cup shredded Mozzarella cheese
  • A small handful of spinach or basil
  • 4-6 cherry tomatoes
  • Pinch of sea salt and pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 375.
  2. Roll up two pieces of aluminum foil to create two rings about 2 inches in diameter. These will be the “holders” of your pizzas. See Life as a Strawberry’s awesome demo.
  3. Remove the stem from the portobellos, then place each cap round-side down on the aluminum foil rings.
  4. Drizzle a half tablespoon of olive oil on each, then follow with a quarter tablespoon of balsamic vinegar on each.
  5. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of mozzarella on each mushroom. Slice the cherry tomatoes and spread across the pizzas. Chop up the basil or spinach and sprinkle that on as well. Sprinkle the last 1/4 cup of mozzarella across the top of them pizzas, then add salt and pepper.
  6. Create a small aluminum foil tent over your mushroom pizzas, then put in oven.
  7. Cook at 375 for 22 minutes, then remove the “tent” and let cook another 3-8 minutes.

Voila! Healthy, easy, simple, and with ingredients you could get almost anywhere. Perfect for evenings when the last thing you feel like doing is cooking something healthy.

What It Means for Our Movement That the NSA is Halting One of Its Worst Surveillance Practices


NSA’s data center in Utah

The New York Times broke the news Friday that the NSA is ending a surveillance program that has been the subject of years of criticism by civil liberties advocates and members of Congress alike. The news came in waves: a brief snippet from Charlie Savage, then a slightly longer update, then confirmation from the NSA, and then the final version (I assume) from Savage that went up hours after the original.  The NSA is promising to end the practice of collecting Americans’  emails and text exchanges with foreigners that mention key identifiers—like email addresses—that aren’t actually directed to or from the targets of NSA surveillance.  (For my fellow tech policy nerds, we call this “about” surveillance.)

Not only that, but the NSA promises to “delete the vast majority of its upstream internet data to further protect the privacy of U.S. person communications.”

My colleague Kate has a thorough write-up of how to consider this within the larger context of NSA reforms Congress needs to enact, and everyone should go read it. I’m not here to talk about the legal and technical landscape related to this announcement.

I just want to talk about how awesome this moment is.

For the better part of a decade, organizations like the ACLU and EFF have been confronting surveillance abuses by the NSA through the courts. Members of Congress like Senator Wyden have demanded answers to NSA surveillance. And whistleblowers like Mark Klein, Bill Binney, Thomas Drake, and Edward Snowden have risked their freedom to tell the American public the truth about what our government is doing in our name. Countless journalists—including the inimitable Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras—have spent years trying to tell the esoteric, muddled story of NSA digital surveillance in a way that regular people could understand.

I think of these actions as seeds of a movement. But the true power of public scrutiny only happened because people actually cared. And make no mistake: even if the FISA Court drove this decision, the ecosystem of resistance that has been built over years created the environment necessary for that decision to happen. Courts, even secret courts, don’t make decisions in a vacuum.

Millions of people—here in the United States and globally—honestly didn’t like the fact that the NSA was sitting on a mountain of intimate digital data like Scrooge McDuck on a pile of gold coins. People were incensed enough to email Congress in droves, ask questions at town halls, send letters to the editor, share articles on Twitter, and take to the streets in protest. I’ve been on those streets and spoken with many of those people, and I’ve been struck by how deeply personal this fight is to so many of them.

Something I’ve noticed in years of speaking to people about NSA spying is that many people are driven to protect the Internet itself. The Internet offers a way to connect millions of people globally to one another and to information, and it’s benefited so many of us in personal, daily ways. It’s not surprising we’re protective of it. For me and others, this fight feels personal because we genuinely like the Internet. It’s fascinating, it brings us joy, and we don’t want the NSA messing it up for us, our friends, and future generations.

And just like we couldn’t have a nice evening our with friends with a government goon standing next to us listening in on our conversations, we can’t enjoy the freedom of the weird, unpredictable, creative Internet when a digital Big Brother is casting a shadow over our communications.

And yes, for all there is still work to be done, this is a moment to celebrate.  Even though so many other aspects of our American political system are teetering toward a more oppressive state, we can all take a moment to enjoy the fact that someone in an NSA data center or office building right now is actually working on deleting millions of records from their databases.

This isn’t the end. I know we have a big fight in Congress this year around NSA spying, and that we need these changes—as well as others—clearly codified into law. But I for one am celebrating. Years of pressure and scrutiny, built on the foundation of damning leaked evidence, were the necessary catalyst for this moment. 

In the wake of the announcement, Edward Snowden tweeted that “People said speaking up isn’t worth the risk. Today, we can see they were wrong. Blow the whistle, change the world.”

Blowing the whistle on abuses is one way to fuel a movement. But remember that it doesn’t make a difference unless people are willing to care. We got to this moment not just because of a handful of brave whistleblowers who spoke out, but because millions of people listened to them and cared.

Important note: most of the time when I write about NSA spying or digital rights, I do it on the EFF blog in my capacity as a blogger for EFF, with strict legal oversight of everything I say. This is a blog post about my personal opinions and doesn’t reflect the views of EFF, or its legal positions or interpretations

6 Lessons I Learned in the First 6 Months of Nonprofit Management Consulting

CC BY-ND 2.0 Deveion Acker

Last October, I offered up a bundle of my ideas, dreams, and experiences, granted it a name and a business bank account, and launched it onto the World Wide Web: Groundwork Consulting.  Groundwork was a way I could formalizing and publicize work I’d been doing for years on the side: working with friends and acquaintances in the nonprofit world to tackle management challenges and think through new opportunities.

Six months later, I realize I’ve been learning a ton about nonprofit management consulting without a lot of chance to reflect on it all. So, here’s a listicle of lessons to commemorate the journey so far:

  1. You can’t change other people. You can only support them in changing themselves. I think this is a lesson I will be blessed to learn again and again in my consulting work. As a management consultant, I can’t make someone change. When talking to a client who has slipped back into a bad pattern, I sometimes wish more than anything that I could just do the work for them. But that’s doesn’t actually help anyone. Only the client can ultimately do the work. My job is just to be a coach, a collaborator, a sounding board, a guide, and a cheerleader in their process. The process can be slow and stumbling at times, but it’s their journey and I need to be present to support it.
  2. My job is to see the best version of my clients. The more I do this work, the more convinced I become that my ultimate work is to believe in the best version of someone else, and reflect that vision back. No matter how down a client may feel on where they are in adopting changes, my job is to keep strong in the belief that they can and will reach their ultimate potential. The world is full of doubters and nay-sayers. But through my consulting work, I get to always believe in the best in others.
  3. Nonprofits are systems whose problems must be viewed holistically. Sometimes a client wants me to help address one small piece of the organization. But no sooner do we begin than all the connected problems and concerns start rearing up, demanding attention. Fixing any one problem requires stepping back and looking at the whole picture.
  4. Changes have to be made one tiny bite at a time. Success helps clients feel optimistic and engaged, and helps them believe in the process. But if they bite off too much, they’re destined to trip up. So my job is to make it easy by drilling down to a single, achievable thing that we can change right now, and then moving on to the next step only once the first change has been mastered.
  5. Relationship problems are the root of many organizational problems. Sometimes nonprofits come to me wanting solutions to what they see as huge organizational problems around structure and strategy. And while it can be useful to get aligned on structure and strategy (and I love hosting those conversations), many of the day-to-day issues boil down to relationship issues. These look like communication problems, unresolved jealousies, hurt feelings, and broken trust. Fixing the relationships makes all the other problems easier to address.
  6. I need to practice what I preach. Even as I have advocated for other people to believe in themselves, practice self-empathy, repair relationships, and adopt big changes by splitting them up into manageable bites, I see countless ways I fall short in these respects. As I look at the next six months, I’m recommitting to holding myself to the same ideals I hold my clients, including making sure that I’m not letting the work run my life. 

I’ve had a lot of other moments of insight along the way, but not all of those lessons fit neatly into a list like this. So I’ll leave it there for now. And if  you’re interested in my nonprofit consulting services or just want to brainstorm about management challenges you’ve been facing lately, drop me a note and let’s chat.

Note: this was originally published on Groundwork.

Standing on Top of a Cliff


I love She Explores, a podcast about women in the outdoors. The host, Gale Straub, is sincere, grounded, and insightful, and she approaches the podcast with curiosity and compassion. Listening to the podcast makes me feel calm, like I walked around the lake near my house.

Recently, Straub tackled a particularly complex and sensitive topic: mental illness and the outdoors. She interviewed people who suffer from anxiety and depression, and many talked about how going out into wilderness helped them.

Straub interviewed Sonya Pevzner, who offered a description of what it’s like to have anxiety. I think it’s one of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard. She said:

Anxiety feels like you’re standing on top of a cliff. And you’re about to go cliff jumping, and so you’re clipped into your harness. And you’re about to jump, and then at the last minute you remember that you might not have secured all of your harness properly and that you might fall to your death. You’re 99% certain that you secured the harness, but there’s that little seed of doubt. And then right before you’re about to jump, you’re like Oh my god I could die. That’s what anxiety feels like.

But you’re, you know, sitting on the couch thinking about something you have to do or wondering about something you have to do or even you’re going into work or you’re traveling. Anything that you’re doing, when you’re anxious about it, is just horribly exacerbated. And even though you know you did everything right—you locked the door, you turned the stove off, you nailed the interview—you know there’s nothing to actually worry about. If you objectively look at it, you know there’s little cause for anxiety, but your mind turns it into this life or death situation. And it’s so hard to be objective when you are in that space.

Listen to the entire podcast.

DogVacay Is Good for Dog Sitting, Lousy for Privacy

DogVacay is a website where people who love dogs can offer dog sitting services. I know because I love dogs but can’t have one right now because of travel and career commitments. So sometimes I host dogs for friends or through DogVacay. I love all the dogs who have visited me through the site, even the ones that were a tiny bit neurotic.

What don’t I love? DogVacay’s privacy practices.

Yesterday, I got an email from It asked me to “verify my email address.”
I didn’t remember visiting, or signing up for an account. So I ignored the email.

Later that morning, I started getting emails from Nextdoor. They were updates from people in my neighborhood who were posting to Nextdoor.

It appeared that somehow—for reasons I couldn’t understand—somebody had set up an account for me on Nextdoor. So I visited Nextdoor and reset the password associated with my email address, then emailed Nextdoor to try to find out what was going on.


Nextdoor replied a few hours later:


Oh, betrayal. Could DogVacay—a site that had only brought me joy in the past—really have shared (sold??) its account data with Nextdoor without so much as notifying the users?

I popped over to DogVacay’s privacy policy. The answer was probably yes.


Personally, I think it’s utterly unreasonable for DogVacay to take my account information and use it to sign me up for a different website without telling me. I think the folks at DogVacay should have realized that, if I’d wanted an account on Nextdoor, it was well within my abilities to go set one up.

I also think Nextdoor should have held DogVacay to a higher standard, and not accepted the new accounts unless 1. DogVacay had notified its users and 2. Users affirmatively consented to it. At the very least, Nextdoor shouldn’t have kept sending me email when I hadn’t signed up for an account or verified my email address.

DogVacay, do better. Your business exists because of dog sitters who entrust you with their data, and is waiting in the wings.

UPDATE (January 20, 2016 at 2:15 PM)

I emailed my concerns to DogVacay, offered to talk to them, and sent them a copy of this blog post. I got two emails from them. The first at 10:45 AM with the subject line “Exclusive: Grow your business on Nextdoor for free.”


Note that there’s no language like “We set up an account for you on another site.”

The second email came at 1:19 PM, from a customer service rep:


Then there was a coupon code for $50.



Looking Back on 6 Years of Fighting for Chelsea Manning

Follow me on Twitter @RaineyReitman

President Obama announced that he would commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence today. Instead of spending another 28 brutal years in a military prison for men, she’ll walk free in just a few months.

Chelsea inspired me, and her actions forever changed my life. I remember watching the Apache helicopter video of American soldiers gunning down unarmed people in Iraq, including a Reuters journalist and two children. It fundamentally changed how I saw America’s overseas wars.

I believed strongly that this video belonged in the public. People who elect our government had a right to see what was being done in our name. They had a right to decide for themselves if they agreed with our foreign policies. The day it was published by Wikileaks, I sent it to pretty much everyone I knew.

In late May 2010, Manning was detained. Sometime around June 10th or 11th, word leaked out to the press that an Army analyst named “Bradley Manning” was being charged with leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. On June 11th, an anarchist in Bratislava named Mike Gogulski put up a blog post on—a domain he had just registered—linking to the Apache helicopter video. On June 13th, he put out a blog post asking for volunteers.

He said he needed writers:

“We need people writing on-topic, current material on an ongoing basis. Articles could be published here either under your name or pseudonymously, and material already published elsewhere is welcome.”

I decided to send an email.

At the time, just sending that first email seemed scary. Manning was being labeled a traitor, and I was living in the military-heavy town of San Diego and thinking I might one day apply for a job at the Federal Trade Commission. I thought getting involved with Manning’s campaign might land me on some government watch list, or hurt future career opportunities.

Instead, I was swept up, and the campaign we built together over the coming weeks, months, and years took over my life.

My friend Charles Langley, who was the first person I talked to about wanting to do something about Chelsea Manning, said at the time that he feared I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I replied that life was about biting off more than you can chew.

Today, looking back over the beauty, mess, and weirdness of the last six and a half years, I still believe it. Life is definitely about biting off more than you can chew.

It boggles the mind to think how far we came with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. In some ways, we were squaring off against the United States government itself, with its seemingly infinite resources. As the trial dragged on for years, we had to fundraise for every dollar to cover legal fees, buy supplies to send mailings, and pay a pittance to a small group of overworked, dedicated, wonderful organizers who used every scrap of bravery and creativity imaginable to advance the public’s knowledge of Chelsea Manning.

That campaign included billboards, flash mobs, banner drops, rallies, viral videos, and one full page ad in the New York Times. I remember working late in the night to help craft a letter to propose Chelsea Manning for the Nobel Peace Prize, stepping onto a soap box with a bullhorn for the first time in my life, waking up to calls from supporters in other time zones, and sitting in a court room furiously scribbling notes during Chelsea’s pretrial hearing and court martial. 

Even as I continued my work with the Chelsea Manning Support Network, I shifted more of my energy to the Freedom of the Press Foundation over the last few years, where I continued working to raise awareness about Chelsea. We brought the world Chelsea’s voice in court, leaked anonymously to us, and we also launched a crowd-funding campaign to send court reporters to document Chelsea’s entire court martial. Between the two organizations, we covered the overwhelming majority of Chelsea’s legal fees.

Working on the Chelsea Manning campaign, I learned to believe in the transformative power of hope. And also the importance of clear delegation, well-run conference calls, and getting good photos at public events. 

I also learned that heroes are fictional. No matter how awe-inspiring someone seems on paper, we’re all human. In many ways, I appreciated Chelsea even more as I got to know her over the last year, and discovered that she was funny, sensitive, gentle, and deeply intelligent—not someone to put on a pedestal, but someone to trust and talk to as a friend.

I wish that we had won Chelsea’s freedom in court. I wish that she’d received a sentence of time served at her court martial, and that she could have walked out of prison free years ago. As Trevor and I wrote earlier today, “Whistleblowers acting in the public interest should not be beholden to the president’s whims. Instead, fair laws should ensure strong protections for whistleblowers who shed light on human rights abuses, war crimes, corruption, and government deception.”

Even as Chelsea Manning prepares to leave prison, many others await justice. Among them is Edward Snowden, a young man who responsibly disclosed documents about intelligence abuses and has been in exile for years as a result. His campaign—which is far prettier and better organized than anything we ever made for the Chelsea Manning Support Network—is at

The last 6 years, I’ve been continually inspired by not just Chelsea, but the dedicated group of people working—often with no appreciation—in defense of Chelsea Manning. There are too many to name, but I have to acknowledge a few who have every right to celebrate today. Above all, Jeff Paterson, Project Director of Courage to Resist. I truly believe no one on earth handles a crisis better than Jeff, which is lucky since we had more than our fair share.  Also, David Coombs, Chelsea’s first attorney, who gave everything to her case for many years.

So many people spent years fighting to raise awareness about Chelsea’s case. These include (in no order whatsoever) Daniel Ellsberg, Mike Gogulski (OMG Mike did this really just happen really?), Emma Cape, Trevor Timm, Alexa O’Brien, Evan Greer, Chase Strangio, Nancy Hollander, the amazing individual who is too private for me to name publicly but knows how much I value them, Gerry Condon, David Solnit, Kevin Zeese, Michael Thurman, Charlotte Sheasby-Coleman, Logan Price, Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Owen Wiltshire, Nathan Fuller, Melissa Keith, Farah Muhsin, Gary Virginia, Leez, Martin MacKerel, and the rest of Get Up Street Theater, Bob Meola, and Michael Moore. I know I’m forgetting a ton of names, and I’m sorry, but it’s late and I’m still dizzy with gratitude. There were also stellar journalists covering this case, and while I can’t name them all, Glenn Greenwald, Kevin Gosztola, Denver Nicks, and Charlie Savage were especially dedicated to ensuring the public understood this case.

Many organizations other than the Chelsea Manning Support Network  and Freedom of the Press Foundation fought hard to ensure justice for Chelsea, including Courage to Resist, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, ACLU, EFF (my full time job), and Amnesty International. I know there are many others, these are just the few I worked with most closely.

Also, a huge shout-out to those who spoke out for Chelsea Manning in our celebrity video, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Roger Waters, Oliver Stone, Phil Donahue, Alice Walker, Tom Morello, Matt Taibbi, Peter Sarsgaard, Angela Davis, Moby, Molly Crabapple, Tim DeChristopher, LT Dan Choi, Bishop George Packard, Russell Brand, Allan Nairn, Chris Hedges, Wallace Shawn, Adhaf Soueif and Josh Stieber.

And finally, a special thanks to Michael Ratner, a tireless advocate for Chelsea Manning until his death. I know he would have been proud to be here today.

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