Criminal justice reporter Keri Blakinger speaks with us about her new memoir, out today, called “Corrections in Ink,” which details her path from aspiring professional figure skater to her two years spent in prison after she was arrested in her final semester of her senior year at Cornell University with six ounces of heroin. Blakinger says her relatively short jail sentence was a lucky case, which she attributes to progressive drug reform as well as her racial privilege. Blakinger went on to become an investigative journalist and now works at The Marshall Project, where she is the organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We end today’s show with a national broadcast exclusive with one of the leading criminal justice reporters in the country, whose new memoir is out today, describes her journey from addiction to prison to the newsroom. Keri Blakinger is an investigative journalist based in Houston, Texas, where she covers criminal justice and injustice for The Marshall Project. She’s the organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her book, Corrections in Ink, details her path from aspiring professional figure skater to when she struggled and turned to drugs at age 17, and ultimately landed in prison after she was arrested with six ounces of heroin in her final semester of her senior year at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Keri Blakinger, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Congratulations on the publication of your book.
KERI BLAKINGER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to start start there. Before we talk about your time in prison and how it shaped your reporting, talk about your arrest in 2010 on the streets of Ithaca, where you were going to Cornell, and the charges you faced.
KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah. One of the things that I think a lot about in terms of that arrest and how that all played out is how differently that could have gone if it was just a few years earlier. I got arrested in 2010, which was just after they had repealed the Rockefeller Drug Laws. They got progressively repealed between 2004 and 2009. And by the time I got arrested, I was able to get a sentence of two-and-a-half years, and I ended up serving 21 months. But had I been arrested, you know, a few years earlier, I would have gotten 15 to life, and I would still be in prison and not even eligible for parole yet. So, I think about that a lot when I think about that day that I got arrested.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Keri, I wanted to ask you about the — in your book, you talk quite extensively and very eloquently about the conditions that women face in prison — strangely enough, about the availability of drugs, the very thing that you were arrested and jailed for, within the prison, and also the abuse of solitary confinement. Could you talk about those things?
KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, I think that one of the things that a lot of people think — I mean, even now I have a lot of people saying it to me — that you can send someone to prison, and at least they’ll get clean, they’ll get off drugs, because there won’t be drugs there. And that’s just not true. And I think a lot of people still don’t know that. I mean, I could get heroin delivered to my bedside in prison. So, when people stay off drugs behind bars, you know, that also takes effort in a way that I don’t think people appreciate. And, you know, throwing someone in jail or prison is no guarantee that they’re forced to stay off drugs.
AMY GOODMAN: Keri, your time in prison, the description, I mean, the darkness of this period in your life — if you can talk about how you got the drugs in, and then the guards full well knowing that you were completely out of it, you were drugged out?
KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah. When I got arrested, I had a lot of drugs on me, and I had some that I ended up bringing in with me into the jail. And I was — I think it was pretty apparent that I was quite high those first few days, but I don’t think they necessarily knew what to do. And, you know, I was so out of it that at one point I remember them discussing whether I really needed to be taken to court.
But I was also very lucky, because after I came off those drugs, that was a jail that at that time had Suboxone, which is something that is used to help treat opioid addiction. And it’s usually used long term to help prevent relapse and minimize cravings and prevent overdose. And they did not offer it long term, but they did at least offer it short term. And I know that a lot of people will think that a drug that can help minimize the pain of detox is just coddling addicts. I hear this a lot. But I think it’s actually — it was actually really important for me, because that meant that I wasn’t trying to find drugs. When there were drugs available, I wasn’t trying to continue getting high behind bars. And I had a little bit of clarity in those first few weeks after my arrest to help make really important decisions about whether to stay off drugs, about what I wanted to do legally. And I think that having that help ease detox actually was a lifesaver for me.
AMY GOODMAN: You have a new piece out headlined “Why we didn’t celebrate Gay Pride Month in women’s prison: Women’s prison was the queerest place I’ve ever been — and one of the most homophobic.” Explain the disparity.
KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, there’s a few ways that’s true. I mean, first of all, just on a base level, it’s the only place I’ve ever been where you would actually be punished with torture, with solitary confinement, for acting out on anything — you know, on anything gay, on anything same-sex, because it wasn’t just sex that’s banned in prison, it’s also, you know, you can’t touch other prisoners, you can’t hug, you can’t stroke someone’s hair. This is all technically against the rules. And that’s the only place I’ve lived where that’s ever — you know, where that’s ever punishable.
But there was also this undercurrent in the culture, I think, of some sort of — I don’t know — institutionalized bigotry, in some ways. I mean, what we called it when you got in trouble for any same-sex interaction was a DG, which is short for “degenerate act.” And that wasn’t the official name in the rulebook, but that’s what the staff called it, and that’s what the prisoners called it. And I think it says so much about how they and we saw that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Keri, once you got out of prison, you were able to get a second chance, graduate from college. You became an investigative reporter. Could you talk about that transition and why, as you note, you had that opportunity, but many others don’t?
KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, sure. You know, I think that that’s one of the really important things about this book. On the one hand, I want to give hope to people who are inside to see that it’s possible to have second chances. But I think it’s also really important for people to understand — you know, people on the outside to understand what the barriers are and why not everyone ends up with the sort of success story that I’ve been able to have.
And a lot of that, of course, is the racial and class privilege issues that, you know, y’all are, of course, well aware of. I think that one of the ways that it’s — one of the ways that it’s really important to understand how it plays out in a story like mine is sort of cumulative, over the years. I think, for instance, that by the time I got arrested, I had had so many interactions with police over the years that could have gone very differently if I were Black or Brown. There were so many times where I was clearly doing things that were suspicious, that could have resulted in more arrests and a longer criminal record, so that by the time I actually got arrested in 2010, I might have had far more priors and qualified for a much harsher sentence, done longer, gone to prison where Black and Brown people are more likely to get tickets that send them to solitary and less likely to make parole, ended up doing more time, spent more time away from the community and my family. And, you know, by the time I got out, it would have been that much harder to reintegrate before facing all of the same systemic barriers that exist for Black and Brown people on the outside.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about how your experience has informed and propelled you to cover criminal justice issues, especially now with The Marshall Project?
KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think that, first of all, I think it’s given me a starting point of understanding that people in prison are people. And I think that might sound obvious, but very commonly people sort of think of prisoners as faceless numbers, because it’s really hard to actually have lots of meaningful interactions with prisoners. You know, prisons are inherently hard to get in. You know, they’re behind razor wire. Access is so limited. So I think that just having that starting point has given me the perspective that there are other things about prisoners that are worth covering. And I think that’s made a big difference. But, you know, I also think that there’s a lot of prisoners who have been more willing to speak to me because they know that I know that. They know that I come from a starting point of seeing them as human.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Keri, dentures. We have one minute. Why are dentures so important?
KERI BLAKINGER: Well, I mean, I think that just — it’s a body part. Like, on a base level, this is a body part that many prisons, you know, were not giving to prisoners. And having them can be so important in terms of confidence and just feeling like you’re being treated like a person, but also in terms of reentry and coming out and looking as employable as possible.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain what you did.
KERI BLAKINGER: In Texas prisons, they’ve been routinely denying dentures to toothless prisoners. They would take the food and put it in a blender, purée it and, you know, just pour it in a cup. And I investigated this for almost a year and wrote a story about it. And afterwards, the Texas prison system bought a 3D printer to be able to start 3D-printing dentures for prisoners.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Keri Blakinger, this book is astounding. Keri is an investigative reporter in Texas for The Marshall Project. Her column is called “Inside Out,” that she does with NBC News and Marshall. Her new memoir, out today, Corrections in Ink. We will continue our conversation in Part 2 at democracynow.org. We’ll also link to her columns online.
Democracy Now!_ produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Camille Baker, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.