Keri Blakinger’s memoir interrogates the ordinary cruelties of the carceral system

by Jody DiPerna

Journalist and writer Keri Blakinger spent about two years behind bars, serving time on drug charges in both jails and prisons in the state of New York. After her release, Blakinger became a journalist, worked for the Houston Chronicle and the Marshall Project and has just signed on with the Los Angeles Times. In her memoir, “Corrections in Ink” (St. Martin’s Press, 2022), she candidly interrogates her own struggles, her incarceration and her journey to becoming a relentless watchdog. 

Blakinger opens her memoir by writing about the morning of her arrest in December of 2010. At the time, she was a student at Cornell University, dealing with an overwhelming heroin problem, plus all the other problems that a college student might face, like not having any clean clothes and needing yet another extension on a paper which was long overdue. After pulling on some unlaundered clothes and heading out, she was arrested with a Tupperware container of heroin on her. Her mugshot made the local news — Ivy League student arrested with $150,000 worth of heroin. The story was picked up outside of Ithaca and it made the news in eastern Pennsylvania, where Blakinger had grown up. She was famous. Or infamous. 

That’s the jumping off point for a book that pulls on threads from her early life and post-prison career, all braided together with her writing about life on the inside. For a book that deals with  heavy subject matter of substance use disorder, eating disorders, sexual assault, and incarceration, Blakinger’s is a happy ending, as she writes, “Everybody should get the second chances I got, but most people do not.” 

She managed to get substance-free while on the inside and she is very clear — that happened in spite of her incarceration, not because of it. After release she was able to finish her bachelor’s degree at Cornell and start working in journalism, first for the Ithaca Journal and eventually for The Marshall Project

She has tirelessly researched and reported on the system, interviewing so many people who are incarcerated and filing more Right-to-Know Requests than you can even begin to count. Her work for the Marshall Project has included reporting on two men who died in the Texas Prison System when it was known that there were broken fire alarms, officials granting fewer releases from federal prisons during COVID-19 and that Texas prisons stopped in person visits and limited mail but how drugs got inside anyway

Blakinger has lived in bad conditions and written about worse ones. There may not be a fix for a system of incarceration, but it does not have to be as broken as it is, she says. 

“It can be as simple as serving food that’s not moldy. It can be installing air conditioning in Texas prisons,” Blakinger said. And it’s not just Texas. Last summer, during a hellacious heat wave, City Limits reported on extreme conditions at Rikers. Right here in Pittsburgh, people housed in the Allegheny County Jail reported that it was freezing inside the jail this winter

Essentially, we treat people who are incarcerated, whether convicted, or pretrial detainees, as less than human. Blakinger says it could easily be better and more humane if we simply invested a little more in medical care to provide what she calls, “the bare minimum required to keep people alive, because that doesn’t happen in places.” 

“It can mean not housing people in areas that are cells filled with black mold. There’s all of these things that could be done to make the infrastructure something that you would not be embarrassed to house an animal in,” Blakinger said. 

Blakinger could talk for hours about the work she’s done, but the bulk of “Corrections in Ink” takes place when she herself was inside and she is so skilled as a writer that she’s able to pull the reader inside with her, sitting in the cell next to her in places like the Tompkins County Jail, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, and Albion Correctional Facility, as she and the other women weather the tempests and storms of life in the carceral system. 

Policies change, from facility to facility, from day to day and almost from hour to hour, altering and morphing with each shift of corrections officers. There are rules, so many rules, both written and unwritten, but the thing they all have in common is the caprice with which they are deployed, said Blakinger. No sitting on the bed during the day. No exercising in the cell. Or, it’s fine to sit on the bed. Or exercise in your cell. Or not.

And you can’t have a watch, but time is regimented. You can be moved from one facility to another with 15 minutes notice (this happened to Blakinger multiple times.) 

Jails and prisons are disorienting and destabilizing and other women she was housed with often said being inside was like being in the Twilight Zone. The system is both cruel and infantilizing. 

“I think it makes it harder for people to interface with the world in a positive way afterwards. [It] doesn’t do a good job of preparing people to be more productive or healthier community members afterwards,” Blakinger said. 

She was so accustomed to random searches and having her property — writing, books, her commissary, anything personal really — taken away at a moment’s notice that she can still fit all of her belongings in her car. 

The lack of constancy, the punishments for acts that aren’t anything at all, the continued use of solitary — rather than prepare people to return to society, teaches that it doesn’t matter if you follow the rules or try to do things that are expected. 

“You can still be targeted. That’s surely true in the free world, especially in heavily over-policed Black and brown communities, but it’s even more true in jail. And I think that can be a really counterproductive message if you basically teach people that the rules don’t matter,” Blakinger said.

In “Corrections in Ink,” Blakinger doesn’t spend much time chronicling the stories that she wrote, but she does note one that stays with her. During her time working as a staff writer for the Houston Chronicle, she broke a story about the lack of dental care inside Texas prisons. In short, dentures were not considered essential medical care, so incarcerated people who had lost their teeth were fed the prison rations simply tossed in a blender which is as awful as that sounds, Blakinger says. Her reporting forced the Texas Department of Corrections to provide dentures, at least to some. 

“There are hundreds of people who ended up getting dentures,” she said. But the state never expanded the programs as promised, so there are many who are still getting blended food and living without teeth. She says that it is a reminder of the ceaseless work to be done and that journalists and other watchdogs have to constantly make those in power answerable for their actions and inactions.  

“On the one hand, it’s so, so exciting and it makes the work feel meaningful when you can hold institutions accountable,” Blakinger said, even though “change doesn’t stay changed — it reverts and requires ongoing reporting and accountability.”

author photo credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman

This story is part of our coverage of books that examine American mass incarceration in advance of the screening of the documentary “Calls from Home” on March 11th at City of Asylum. You can book your free tickets here.