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From Prison to the Newsroom: Keri Blakinger, Formerly Incarcerated Reporter, on Her New Memoir & More

Web ExclusiveJune 07, 2022
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In an extended, in-depth interview we speak with investigative journalist Keri Blakinger about her “epic” new memoir, “Corrections in Ink,” and her path from aspiring professional figure skater to prison after she was arrested in her final semester of her senior year at Cornell University with six ounces of heroin. 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.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue now with Part 2 of our interview with one of the leading criminal justice reporters in the country, whose new memoir is out today, describing her journey from addiction to Cornell University to prison to the newsroom. Keri Blakinger is an investigative journalist based now in Texas, where she covers criminal justice and injustice for The Marshall Project. She’s the organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter. She does a column called “Inside Out” for them and NBC News. Her book is out today. It’s called Corrections in Ink: A Memoir, detailing her path from aspiring professional figure skater to when she struggled and turned to drugs at the age of 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.

Keri Blakinger, thanks so much for staying with us for this continuation of the interview. Why don’t we start with the title? Why did you call it Corrections in Ink?

KERI BLAKINGER: So, this is actually — I was really stuck on the title. I mean, obviously, it’s punning on, you know, “corrections,” like a corrections department, and then, you know, “ink,” because I became a reporter. I also wrote in pen the whole time when I was locked up, and kept having to correct things in ink. But I kept joking that it sounds like a tattoo memoir and that I was just going to have to spend enough of the book money on tattoos until the title fit, which is what I did.

AMY GOODMAN: You could call it — you could have a subheadline, which is a subtitle, which is Corrections in Ink: Tatt-le Tales — from Behind the Bars_.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN:from Behind the Bars. But let me ask you about that, about writing in prison, because you make the point that, on the one hand, you were writing and sending your writing out, but, on the other hand, you understood this could indict you further, because this is a chronicle of your time in prison. And what if they find it?

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, totally. Journaling in prison has certain risks. You know, anything you have is subject to search and potentially confiscation at any point in jail, in prison, you know, whatever. And so, I had to be cognizant of what I was writing. And I tried to mail it to people on the outside every few days, so that I never had too much of it on me at any time, you know, whether it was commentary on things other people were doing or sometimes just, you know, commentary on the staff that they just might not like. I mean, aside from whether I was actually describing anything that was any kind of violation of the rules, just, you know, basic snarky commentary could have repercussions if the wrong person finds it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about that. I mean, you talk about a woman — and this goes to the issue of solitary, how women were put in solitary, how it broke them. I mean, this is for just like making a negative comment about a guard.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, I was shocked by the things that people would get put in solitary for. And, you know, in fairness, this has — the law has changed around this some in New York, but, you know, there are other states that still use solitary very liberally. But, you know, I mean, I had one friend who did 30 days in SHU, which is solitary, for having an extra pair of earrings. It was sort of common knowledge that you could get put in solitary for having too many stamps, or, you know, when I was in jail, one of the neighboring jails put someone in solitary for having too many towels.

And as you’re alluding to, there’s one story that I tell in that book that started off with someone, you know, just getting in a verbal sparring match with the guards, just calling them names, you know, and all of these things can result in punishment, in part because there’s no oversight. Like, if the staff in a prison wants to retaliate or wants to punish you for something, there’s no outside entity there to ensure that they don’t abuse their power. Any sort of checks on power only come after the fact. You know, no one’s there in the moment to stop them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back in your life. This is not only a story about prison. It’s also, overall, a story about addiction and growing up in this culture. You dealt with bulimia, with anorexia. You were a star skater. Talk about, you know, how you dealt with your body from early on, especially for young teens who are watching right now, and there are many.

KERI BLAKINGER: You know, I mean, I grew up in figure skating, like you said. And I think that that creates some real distortions in sort of worldview. I mean, to be clear, I love the sport. But it also creates this idea that you’re always too old, and you’re always too fat. You know, for as long as I can remember, I, you know, remember feeling like it was a race against time. You know, your career is over very young, and you grow up feeling old. And, you know, similarly, you grow up feeling like, especially in pair skating — I did pairs with a guy, you know, that throws you around, and it looks dangerous — you know, you grew up knowing that if you were a little bit lighter, it would help with pair lifts and throws and things.

But, you know, on top of that, it’s just — you know, it’s a high-pressure sport, where you, as an athlete, have very little control over a lot of things. Like, you have control over your own performance, to an extent, you know, but that’s it. And when you add to add to that just being a teenager and having so little agency in one’s life to begin with, you know, it sort of becomes that food was one of the things that I could control. And it’s funny, because I think, growing up, I heard that. Like, therapists would say, you know, “Oh, it’s about control.” And eating disorders are not just about control. But I think it was far more about that than I was ever aware of at the time. That’s only something that I’ve sort of come to understand as I’ve gotten older.

AMY GOODMAN: And you also talked about cutting.

KERI BLAKINGER: You know, I dabbled with that. That was never — that was never my thing. Like, I tried it, but I sort of — I returned to eating disorders. And, you know, I had suicidal ideation from a pretty young age, and I had some attempts pretty early, including one in high school

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that suicide attempt, why you did it and what you think led to you saving your life?

KERI BLAKINGER: Well, you know, the first time, I was in high school, and I was — I was ready to go run out in traffic, I had biked to the nearby highway, and it was such dumb luck. My therapist drove by as I was standing there by the side of the road. And she —

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. I mean, this is unbelievable. You’re about to take your own life, and, by chance, your therapist drives by? You didn’t call her.

KERI BLAKINGER: No, I didn’t call her. I definitely didn’t call her. I didn’t like her. So I definitely didn’t call her. But yes, it was wild. I don’t think I even knew that she would have lived in a place that would have made sense for her to be driving by. I actually don’t even know if she ever knew that’s what I was doing. I think she was suspicious, but I didn’t admit it to her at the time. She was just sort of like, “Hey, what are you doing here?”

You know, but I was — it’s not like that was some turning point for me. You know, I was still in a dark place. I mean, I was in high school. And obviously I continued to screw up my life for many years after that, and, you know, through a lot of it, continued to want to die. And, you know, then by the time that I was in my early twenties and at Cornell, I had just transferred to Cornell and was, you know, doing drugs. And I made a — you know, a much more significant, I guess, attempt, when I jumped off one of the gorges, one of the bridges over the gorges in Ithaca. They have nets there now so that that is harder to do.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that’s been going on for so long there. But a 98-foot fall?

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I went back, and I was there recently, and I walked over that bridge, and I looked. And I was like, I don’t really think this is 98 feet. But it’s the police at the time that told me it was 98 feet. And what I think is funny about this is that police sort of notoriously exaggerate numbers, like amounts of drugs, dollar values of drugs, during arrests. And I looked at that, and I was like, I don’t think this is 98 feet; I think this is police exaggerating numbers again.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you end up fracturing a number of vertebrae, end up in the ICU. When you come out, you get a little being who changes your life. Tell us about Charlotte and the difference she made in your life in and out of prison.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, sure. So, just a few days after I got out of the hospital, I was waiting in line at Walmart. I was still in a back brace, like a clamshell back brace. And the person I was dating at the time suggested that I should get some sort of pet, something that I would care for, that would be dependent on me, so that I wouldn’t try to kill myself again. And I think it was the probably only good suggestion they ever made the whole time we were together. But as I was waiting in line at Walmart, I saw someone with kitty litter in front of me. And I was like, “Hey, do you have an extra cat?” And they were like, “No, but I actually know someone who has a dog that is going to get taken to the pound if no one adopts it.”

So, that weekend, we drove out and got this dog. And, you know, she was skittish and starved, and she’d been living in a home with other dogs that were bullying her and taking her food. And, you know, she was not in great shape. And, you know, neither was I. But she followed me everywhere, to class. I would bring her to classes with me, and she would sit on the chair next to me, like a little person paying attention. And she was sort of the one — the one person in my addiction that didn’t know how badly I was screwing up my life, you know, was dependent on me and just looked at me as a person, and that was it. And, you know, when I got arrested, and I didn’t know where she was, because I was not in my apartment when I got arrested, I didn’t know what happened to her. And I felt like I had, you know, let down the only person that was entirely dependent on me and the only person that had never looked at me different because of all the mistakes I was making.

AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s interesting that you’re referring to Charlotte, your little pup, as a person.

KERI BLAKINGER: I know, it’s kind of weird telling this story, because I’ve, over the years, like, told this in various ways and just decided that “person” is the word that feels like it fit the most there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as a pup mom myself, I completely understand. You talk about what happened when you were in prison, who took care, and then coming out, what that meant for you, that continuity in your life.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, after I got arrested, and Charlotte was alone in the apartment, the property manager found a nice, stable couple in a nice part of town with this beautiful house with a stream out back. And they already had a dog, who actually looks a lot like Charlotte. And they were willing to take Charlotte in for just a few days. But then they ended up taking her in for the whole time I was gone. And I didn’t know if I’d actually get her back. Like, she had this beautiful home that could give her all these things that I never could have, or at least the old me couldn’t have. And then, you know, when I got out, this couple, Florianna and David, they said, you know, they’d give her back.

And this was the first place that I went when I got out. The day of my release, I immediately wanted to go see Charlotte. And she actually didn’t recognize me. And that was — that was heartbreaking. That was sort of another moment when I realized all over again how badly I had, you know, screwed up, how badly I had let people down. But eventually I started taking her on walks near places we used to live, and I could see the moment that it clicked, and she realized, like, “Oh, this is that human from before.”

And, you know, I took her home, and then Florianna and David became like second parents to me. And they would bring me food, groceries. We would have dinner together. You know, I joined their — I joined Florianna’s little movie group that she had at one point. And, you know, I mean, they were, I think, the first — they felt like the first people that trusted me and weren’t judging me on my past. And when they would go away, they would let me house sit. Like, they gave me their key. You know, me, this, like, recently released prisoner, they were entrusting to watch their house and their dog and my dog. And, you know, it felt like such a new beginning for me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to talk about that issue of reentry on a broader scale. For you, it was less rocky than many, but you have covered that, this very difficult path from inside to outside. And also talk about the issue of white privilege, which you take on in the book, the color of your skin and what a difference it made both inside and outside.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, you know, I had a — obviously, I had a successful reentry. You know, I had it easy. I had a place to stay. I eventually — it took a while, but, you know, I eventually got a job and started a career. But even so, in the sort of best-case scenarios, I think reentry is so hard, aside from all of the support services that people need and often don’t get, just the transition from being sort of in a weird time-out-like penalty box situation where, you know, for years the only thing you’re doing in life is waiting for time to pass. You know, you’re not actually sort of building skills for the future. And then, when you get out, sort of figuring out the transition, from doing nothing more than waiting for time to pass to actually trying to rebuild as a productive citizen, is challenging, aside from all of the, you know, much more pressing issues of housing and education and employment that so many people who are in prison deal with. I mean, everyone deals with these issues when they get out. And, of course, all of these things are easier, you know, for a white person who’s coming out and not dealing with all of the systemic racism that plagues every part of our system, from arrest to reentry to rebuilding afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about some of these critical issues that you continue to report on — for example, the recent piece, the report, “Burned to Death in a Prison Cell,” looking at Texas prisoners burning to death, and the lack of fire alarms, from your unique perspective.

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah. So, this story was kind of wild even for someone who’s done time. You know, I did not see this sort of thing happening in New York prisons. But, you know, what happened was I got a tip that there was somebody that had burned to death in a prison cell. And I was actually not surprised by this, because a year or so earlier I had written a story about how Texas prisons didn’t have working fire alarms in many of the housing areas, not just in sort of unused buildings, but in the housing areas.

And this is particularly problematic because when prisons are understaffed and when they’re on lockdown, and prisoners aren’t getting things they need — they’re not getting out for showers, or they’re not getting out of their cell for recreation, or they’re not getting mail, or they’re not getting fed regularly, or sometimes just because they’re having a mental health crisis — one of the things that they do sometimes is start fires. And the thought is that that will force someone higher up, you know, a sergeant, a major, whatever, to come down and figure out what the issue is and address the issue.

And in this case, the prisoner in question, Jacinto De La Garza, he started a fire in his cell, but it didn’t get put out. And he ended up, you know, being in there for — by the accounts of the prisoners that I spoke to, you know, for somewhere around half an hour or more. And he died of smoke inhalation. And by the time that he got pulled out, his rubber shower shoes had melted to his feet. And, you know, I interviewed some of the prisoners who witnessed this, and I interviewed some of the staff on the unit. And, you know, obviously it’s a tragic story.

And it’s also just shocking in that I just don’t know a lot of housing or living spaces that sort of routinely just don’t have functional fire alarms. But Texas prisons have been getting dinged by the State Fire Marshal about this for, you know, more than a decade. And, you know, the issues have — some have been addressed, but largely have not been corrected. And part of this is a financial thing. You know, the Texas prison system is big, and it’s expensive, and there’s a lot of needs that go unfunded. And one of them has been fire alarms.

AMY GOODMAN: Keri, do prisoners talk to you differently? And I’m wondering advice you can give to reporters on how to cover prisons.

KERI BLAKINGER: I think that — I think that prisoners talk about me differently once they know what my past is. You know, they don’t always. Sometimes they just think I’m some sort of, you know, fancy reporter lady. But then when they find out that I’ve done time, one of my favorite things is I got — I used to get letters that were addressed to “the reporter who did time.” And I think that says so much in terms of, like, what it is about me that first speaks to them.

But, you know, even — you know, it’s not just that. It’s also about covering these issues in a meaningful and humanizing way. And there’s some of the — you know, some of the units that I’ve written about, some of the really good things that guys are doing, like there’s — on the unit that houses death row here in Texas, there’s a unit radio station called The Tank, and it is a low-watt station, and you can only hear it like on the unit and in the parking lot. And, you know, it’s all programming by prisoners for prisoners, and the guys on death row have been able to participate a little bit. And after I wrote about that, I can tell a change in how a lot of the guys on that unit approach me and, you know, write to me and deal with me, because, to them, it was also really meaningful to see positive reflections of some of the things that they do behind bars.

AMY GOODMAN: And also talk about when you were imprisoned and your observations about women and addiction, why women end up in prison and how addiction should be dealt with.

KERI BLAKINGER: I mean, just statistically — like, you don’t even need to have been someone who did time — just statistically, women end up in prison for different reasons than men do. It’s much less frequently for violent crime. And a lot of times it’s for something that, you know, were crimes committed with or for a significant other, an often male significant other. So, I mean, just the actual offenses that land people behind bars are different.

But I think the other thing that’s really important to understand about a female prison population is that the vast majority of women have survived sexual trauma at the hands of men. And, you know, that makes a difference in terms of what their needs are during incarceration. And I think it also can — you can easily see how, from that background, it would mean that female prisoners are going to be particularly not helped by the male-centric, sort of military-style structure that exists at a lot of prisons. You know, an angry male sergeant yelling in your face is going to be particularly counterproductive to a woman who’s survived a lot of trauma at the hands of men.

And I know that there are some people that are like, “Oh, it’s prison. It’s not supposed to be easy.” And, of course, no one is saying otherwise. But if we want people to have the best chance of success as possible upon release, and if we want prisons to actually help public safety instead of undermining them, then we have to think about these things and about how people behind bars are treated and whether it is as minimally traumatizing as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you to address parents — I mean, this started way back for you, this level of addiction — and what parents should look for.

KERI BLAKINGER: Oh, wow, that’s a tough one. You know, I think that the thing that parents ask me the most is actually not so much what to look for, because I think that, you know, schools tell you that sort of thing, but what to do and what is the difference between supporting and enabling. And I have a lot of parents say, “Oh, you know, I’m still in touch with my kid who’s using,” or “I’m paying their rent,” or “I’m helping them with food. Like, am I enabling them?”

And, you know, I tell people, like, in my case, my parents supported me in ways that some people would say are enabling. But I think that, for me, that kept me alive and ensured that I was able to sort of continue working my way through school. So, by the time I was ready to get my life together and start in a new direction, I was very close to having a degree. And if I had been in a situation where, you know, I had family who decided that the only approach was to not support at all, not speak to me at all, I wouldn’t have had that by the time I finally got sober.

So, you know, I think the balance between sort of not furthering someone’s addiction and simply supporting them is something that is different for everyone. And if, you know, people say that something or other is enabling, well, I don’t think that’s true across the board. And I think that can vary a lot from one situation to the next. But, you know, simply helping someone stay alive as they struggle with a mental health issue is not enabling them.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Keri Blakinger, if President Biden and members of Congress read your book or your columns on criminal justice and injustice at The Marshall Project, what is the message that you feel is important this nation needs to understand mass incarceration and the criminal justice system?

KERI BLAKINGER: I think there’s this myth that prisons help public safety. And I think that if people read my book, they will understand the many ways in which they might not do that. If you traumatize people in prison and then send them out into the world and expect them to be better, safer citizens, that’s just not realistic. And in that model, prisons are going to undermine public safety instead of helping it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, Keri Blakinger, investigative reporter based in Texas, covering criminal justice and injustice for The Marshall Project, formerly incarcerated reporter, The Marshall Project’s first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her new book is just out. It’s called Corrections in Ink: A Memoir, amazing story of her time in prison for a drug crime here in New York, but not only then, before and after, right through to today. To hear the whole interview, watch the whole interview, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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