Keri Blakinger is blazing the trail for formerly incarcerated people becoming journalists who cover a beat they know all too well.
Glib, almost gleeful, headlines announced Keri Blakinger’s arrest with $50,000 of heroin during the final semester of her senior year at Cornell University. A Washington Post blog reported it as “Another Ivy Drug Bust.”
“When my hometown paper in Lancaster finally got around to the story,” Blakinger writes in her new book, “it can’t have taken them long to comb through the archives — like I did every day in my own mind — and see how much I’d fallen.”
A decade later, Blakinger tells her own story — one of righteous redemption — in a memoir that ends with her becoming an award-winning journalist who focuses on prisons and jails, often thrilling those behind bars as her reporting holds those in charge of them accountable. Her witty prose and frequent self-reflection put a human face on what many women experience before, during and after they go to prison, in a world where they are often portrayed unforgivingly by those who have no idea what it is like.
As the era of mass incarceration drags on, it has become ever-more important to humanize our understanding of what happens to millions of people drawn into the criminalization process. Blakinger writes about how she turned to hard drugs (and sex work to support her habit) in order to cope with deflated dreams as a teenage competitive figure skater. She was also struggling with a related eating disorder that offered both a sense of self-control and “self-destruction that feels like success. I wanted to waste away, slowly and tragically.”
When police arrested her in 2010, she was carrying a tupperware container filled with six ounces of heroin that she planned to help her boyfriend to sell, and to use. As bad as the situation was, it could have been worse. Three decades of activism had recently led to the repeal of New York’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated lengthy prison sentences for such offenses.
“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,” Blakinger told Democracy Now! news hour. “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.”
Blakinger’s memoir is based in part on journals she filled with descriptions of conditions in the Tompkins County Jail and later in Albion, Bedford Hills and Taconic prisons. She mailed the notebooks to her parents to keep guards from confiscating them. Blakinger also used the notebooks to “guesstimate the length of the cellblock” she’d run the length of as she sought to get sober and back in shape. “By the time I got home in the fall of 2012, there was a foot-high stack of yellow legal pads waiting for me. The pages and pages of scrawling blue pen documented every detail of my life from a time when I was a broken person trying to become less broken,” she recalled. She later wrote parts of her book while jogging, stopping to jot down passages on her phone.
Drugs were readily available while Blakinger was incarcerated, if she’d wanted them, whereas treatment for addiction was hard to find — or really any decent medical treatment at all. She describes struggling to get help with a period that lasted six months and how relieved she was to transfer to Taconic, where a psychiatrist and doctor finally approved the treatment for her Hepatitis C, as if she’d “won some kind of healthcare lottery.” Blakinger’s struggle with the lack of access to — or denial of — basic dental care for prisoners later became a focus of her reporting that embarrassed Texas officials to provide dentures to more prisoners after years of de facto denials.
“Blakinger’s success has opened the door wider for others to enter journalism upon their release from prison.”
On topics such as the use of long-term solitary confinement — considered torture in much of the world — to punish trivial offenses, Blakinger recounts how guards would often target the large number of queer incarcerated women. The practice is so common, she says, that it is has it’s own phrase: “Gay for the stay, straight at the gate.” She notes, “If you got caught showing any sort of same-sex affection, you could get written up and punished with anything from a loss of phone privileges to weeks in isolation, and the sort of negative disciplinary record that left you less likely to make parole.”
Soon after her release, Blakinger seized on a “second chance” — which she acknowledges she had more of due to her white privilege — when she was interviewed for the local paper about women in prison and the editor offered her a job as a reporter. She went on to work at The New York Daily News, then covered death row for the Houston Chronicle. She is now the first formerly-incarcerated reporter for The Marshall Project, where she writes the “Inside Out” column. Her career has opened the door wider for others to join the ranks of journalism upon their release from prison, to actually apply their hard-gained insight rather than hide it. One of her many awards is for reporting on women’s jails with a team at The Washington Post, the same paper that once covered her own arrest as “Another Ivy Drug Bust.”
While her memoir is titled Corrections in Ink, these days Blakinger is perhaps most active online, where she shares her clear-eyed storytelling in real time with massive audiences on TikTok and Twitter and continues to shape coverage of prisons and jails. Naturally, she lambasted a TV news outlet that recently described her as an “addict, prostitute” in its on-screen graphics during an otherwise fascinating interview about her life and work.
“So many words to describe what I was instead of who I am,” Blakinger lamented. Scribes like her can help set the record straight about how we describe the millions of people ensnared in the prison-industrial complex, and we need more of them.
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