A portrait of Keri Blakinger

In a Brutally Honest Memoir, Alum Recalls Addiction and Imprisonment

Having returned to complete her degree, reporter Keri Blakinger ’11, BA ’14, now covers the prison system for the Marshall Project

By Linda Copman

In December of her senior year—just a few credits shy of graduation—Keri Blakinger ’11, BA ’14, was arrested on Stewart Avenue with six ounces of heroin in a Tupperware container. She’d ultimately plead guilty to criminal possession of a controlled substance and spend the next 21 months behind bars.

The cover of "Corrections in Ink"

Following her release, Blakinger—who had long struggled with drug use—returned to the Hill and completed her degree in English. She has since gone on to a career in journalism, covering the prison system she experienced first-hand.

“I approach reporting with an assumption that people in prison are people, with their own stories and truths and need for dignity,” she says. “I was one of them.”

Blakinger chronicles her experiences, in unsparing detail and with utter candor, in her new memoir, Corrections in Ink.

“If I told my story—on my own terms—then no one could use it against me,” she writes. “I would own it.”

The book has gotten rave reviews—including in the New York Times, which called it a “brave, brutal memoir” and a “riveting story about suffering, recovery, and redemption.” In a blurb, Piper Kerman, author of the bestselling prison memoir Orange Is the New Black, lauds it as “a testament to where a woman can go after rock-bottom.”

Says Kirkus: “Blakinger’s voice is frank but compassionate, as she lovingly but truthfully owns up to her mistakes. Her deeply researched analysis of the dehumanizing nature of incarceration is trenchant and infused with the passion of her personal experiences.”

As Blakinger describes in the book, for much of her youth she struggled with mental health issues, including self-harm, disordered eating, and a suicide attempt—but she also competed in figure skating at a national level and was a gifted student who earned admission to Cornell, matriculating in January 2007.

If I told my story—on my own terms—then no one could use it against me. I would own it.

By that time, she’d been using drugs off and on for six years; she had sold drugs and sex to maintain her habit, and experienced bouts of homelessness. Blakinger did a two-week detox before moving to Ithaca—arriving, she says, “in the dead of winter, with no friends, and fresh off drugs.”

Her sobriety would not last long. She fell into a deepening spiral that culminated in her arrest, which was covered in local (and even national) media, including the Daily Sun.

Her time behind bars was frightening and dehumanizing—and it convinced her that the institution itself is fundamentally flawed.

“Locking hundreds of traumatized and damaged women in together and threatening them constantly with additional punishments is not rehabilitation,” she writes. “It is not corrections. It is not public safety. It is systemic failure.”

Blakinger vividly recalls the moment she fully comprehended that the staff who controlled her life and those of her fellow inmates had no accountability to the outside world: in northern New York’s Albion Correctional Facility, she overheard two guards talking about a woman in solitary confinement whose water had been shut off.

A pair of ice skaters performing
Blakinger was a nationally competitive figure skater as a teen. (Photo by David Harvath)

“She can drink out of the toilet,” Blakinger recalls one saying. “If it’s good enough for my dog, it’s good enough for her.” As she writes: “That is when I realized: Behind bars, there are no rules.”

After her release, Blakinger—then in her late 20s—was determined to stay sober.

“What I did right was to set a really low bar,” she observes, “and just try to do better.”

She moved to Newark Valley, a rural community between Ithaca and Binghamton, and took whatever writing gigs she could find on Craigslist—including articles on locksmithing and trivia for a Korean website.

When her three-year suspension from the University ended in 2013, Blakinger received permission to finish her degree. Her first course: an online class on prisons, taught by longtime faculty member Mary Fainsod Katzenstein—who notes that Blakinger had already read half of the required books before the first meeting.

“I had heard her story and knew she had done jail time, so I anticipated that she would be able to bring real-life experience to class discussions,” recalls Katzenstein, now the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies, Emerita. “What was soon apparent was that she also came with total grit and smarts.”

Since graduating, Blakinger has worked as a reporter for the Ithaca Times, the New York Daily News (where she interviewed prisoners at Rikers Island), and the Houston Chronicle.

Several years ago, she helped publicize the fact that inmates in Texas prisons were not eligible for dentures—meaning that some were forced to eat with few or no teeth. (Her work prompted the state to purchase a 3D printer capable of making them on-site, believed to be a first for any prison in the U.S.)

Two people talking on the phone in a prison visiting room
Blakinger interviews an inmate in a Texas prison who received dentures as a result of her reporting. (Photo by Daniel Litke)

Blakinger is currently writing for the Marshall Project, a nonprofit that reports on criminal justice issues.

She has covered such topics as the impact of COVID-19 on inmates; the negative effects of rules against hiring ex-convicts (which can drive them back to prison for lack of gainful employment); and how horrific experiences in state-run juvenile institutions increases the likelihood that former inmates will commit violent crimes—and wind up on death row.

Her work also includes compiling a national database of books that are banned in prisons—from New York State (which has no official list) to Texas (over 9,000).

Says Katzenstein: “Her reporting—from some of the most challenging environments, including death row—is penetrating, discerning, and written with her often wry wit. It comes from a place of deep human empathy.”

Her reporting is penetrating, discerning, and written with her often wry wit.

Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, professor emerita

Blakinger credits faculty members like Katzenstein (and her academic advisor, senior lecturer Lynda Bogel, now retired) for seeing her as a human being who struggled with addiction—not as “a bad person, a failure, or a dirty junkie.”

And while Blakinger acknowledges that her own determination was key to turning her life around, she’s also well aware that she has had many advantages—including, as a white woman from an affluent family, the privileges of race and class.

“I always worry it’s too easy for people to look at my story and think I’m proof that anyone who does time should be able to come out and thrive,” she says.

“I wish everyone who did time could have the opportunities I’ve had, but they don’t. When people succeed, it’s often in spite of the system—and not because of it.”

Top image: Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman

Published July 19, 2022


Comments

  1. Doris Marie Provine, Class of 1978

    This is an important article that makes me want to read her book. I particularly appreciated the quotes from Professor Katzenstein.

  2. Ben Rockey-Harris, Class of 2004

    Great article that covers an incredible important issue.

  3. RC de Mordaigle, Class of 1964

    A friend of mine spent a number of years in prison. When released to parole, the parole officers refused to let him live in his own house, which was not in the county where he was arrested, so he lived on the street while dealing with multiple sclerosis. Finally was able to move into a motel, where he died. Not only is the prison system dehumanizing, so is what released prisoners encounter afterward.

    Best regards to Blakinger for her persistence and her work.

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