How an Olympic ice-skating hopeful went from heroin to jail to become a crusader for penal reform
IIf you saw a “weirdo crying behind Harvard Coop” in an alley last month, it was probably Keri Blakinger.
In June, Mrs. Blakinger tweeted about returning to the bookstore that she “used to rob to buy heroin 20 years ago” when she was homeless. She found out they were selling a copy of her new book, Ink correctionsand “freaked out and bought a copy, then sobbed in the alley.”
Ink corrections follows the story of Mrs. Blakinger from Ivy League student and star athlete on her way to the Olympics to heroin addict and back again, with a key element focusing on her incarceration in the early years. Broken and stoned, she was arrested by a cop in 2001 while carrying a container of Tupperware heroin that police initially valued at $150,000. Jailed for “criminal possession of a controlled substance,” she served 21 months of a two-and-a-half-year sentence.
At the time of her arrest, Ms Blakinger was depressed, suicidal and had a long-term eating disorder. She had resorted to theft, prostitution, sex work and selling drugs to fund her addiction. In her harrowing memoir, Ms Blakinger recounts the many times she was raped or sexually assaulted and would free her brain from her body to meticulously count the stars. However, she writes in the book, during many of her assaults, she reportedly had no view of the night sky.
Rarely is a memoir as raw and visceral as Ms. Blakinger’s.
“I really put a lot of stuff in there,” she said in an interview with The Independent. “Enough that I sometimes wonder if I would still be employable.”
Looks like she most definitely is, for a myriad of reasons. Ms. Blakinger is a talented, award-winning and sought-after investigative journalist. A journalist covering America’s broken criminal justice system, she has spent the past five years focusing on prisons and death row. She visited the infamous “Walls” unit in Huntsville, Texas (where since 1982 574 people have been put to death) and was part of a runner-up Pullitzer team in The Houston Chronicle 2018. In 2019, his work helped win a National Magazine Award for The Washington Post coverage of women’s prisons. More recently, Jodi Kantor, one of The New York Times reporters who exposed Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault story, said at an event in New York for Ms Blakinger’s book that Fixes is one of the best memoirs she has ever read.
Ms. Blakinger grew up in the upper middle class of suburban Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her father is a Harvard-educated lawyer and her mother is a teacher who went to Cornell University. A gifted teenager and a motivated student, she excelled in school, wrote for the local newspaper and tried her hand at all the sports and activities usual for a privileged upbringing: horseback riding, piano lessons, gymnastics, football, scouting.
“An assortment of suburbs,” she wrote in her memoir.
Her ice skating career, as a pair skater, has taken her to national championships twice. In 2001, his skating partner decided to move on and chose another athlete to compete with. For a 17-year-old, her world had seemingly imploded, she told me, her sports career was over. Looking back, she says it was like losing a marriage and a job at the same time.
As a result, her eating disorders became more intense. She started doing drugs and her parents sent her to Harvard for summer school, which is how she ended up stealing from the campus bookstore to buy heroin.
“If I’m going to waste away,” she wrote of this period in Fixes, “I will do it far on the rainy rooftops and in the alleys. Like a dog crawling on the porch to die.
The ways in which she then tried to destroy herself are varied: drugs, anorexia, bulimia and suicide attempts. Shortly after starting at Cornell University, Ms. Blakinger threw herself off a bridge spanning a 100-foot gorge in Ithaca, NY.
“The rocks in the gorge below seemed so far away, glistening under a thin film of water,” she wrote. “The birds were out, the sun was up and it looked like a beautiful day to die.” Incredibly, she survived the fall with a few broken vertebrae and even more self-loathing for failing to end her life properly.
Ms Blakinger somehow managed to get through nearly four years of college while also being addicted to heroin, blending the two worlds, she says, like a “mad alchemist”. She was two classes away from completing her degree when she was stopped by the cop who saw her kicking the drug container under a parked car.
She was incarcerated from 2010 to 2012.
After her release from prison, Cornell allowed Mrs. Blakinger to complete her studies in English and she began to contribute to the Ithas times. Her work has led her to hold reporting positions at New York Daily News and The Houston Chronicle. She is now based in Texas and writes for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization focused on criminal justice in the United States. “Texas is a great place to be a reporter covering criminal justice because everything is so broken,” she said. The Independent.
Arguably the biggest guiding thread in Ms. Blakinger’s memoir is misogyny, which she says was not something she specifically set out to examine.
“I knew sexism and misogyny would be part of it, but I didn’t realize this book would be such an indictment of misogyny in the American prison system until I finished it,” she says. .
“Once, when I was eighteen, an addiction counselor told me that if I had been raped more than once, at some point, I would ask.”
In her memoir, Ms Blakinger recalls how an adviser said she was the one at fault. “That I had been assaulted too many times to be the victim. These are words I still cannot forget,” she wrote.
This problem is only exacerbated by the growing number of women in prisons, who are most likely to be imprisoned for non-violent crimes such as drug possession, burglary, theft or fraud. The data of the ACLU even shows that “the vast majority of incarcerated women were victims of violence before their incarceration, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and child abuse”.
Ms Blakinger offers a powerful commentary on the ‘whole premise of prison’ in a succinct passage, calling it ‘absurd’ before adding: ‘Locking up hundreds of traumatized and damaged women together and constantly threatening them with further penalties n “It’s not rehabilitation. It’s not fixes. It’s not public safety. It’s a systemic failure.”
A few sentences later, she writes: “Prisons are full of troubled, not-so-great people – and the ones that are usually didn’t start out that way. More than half of incarcerated women are survivors of physical or sexual violence and about three quarters have mental health issues.
“Taking people who are broken and traumatized, traumatizing them more and expecting them to be better off. It doesn’t work.
Part of that trauma was, in large part, his heroin addiction in prison. Mrs Blakinger said The Independent that the prison provided him with Suboxone to help with the withdrawal process, but the help ended there.
“I arrived on drugs, so I was stoned a bit, but then they gave me Suboxone. And I was lucky, a lot of people don’t understand that. It was really up to the whims of the doctors there. -down,” she recalled, before adding, “It would be like some people were just getting a jug of Koolaid and Tylenol… Some people were getting Suboxone and then later they cut that off and nobody got Suboxone. Heroin detox won’t kill you. That’s part of why it’s bad. You feel bad. You feel like crap. Real withdrawals don’t kill you.
In a particularly harrowing description of the inhumanity of solitary confinement, Ms Blakinger describes the experience as being alone in a 9ft by 6ft ‘coffin’.
“In the free world, I had enjoyed spending time alone. To be lonely is not so much to be alone as to be buried alive.
“Without a sense of time or place, I quietly lost my mind to a degree that still terrifies me. I had never imagined that my grip on reality could become so tenuous, so abruptly. I had banged my head against the wall for distraction and made myself vomit just to pass the hours,” she wrote.
She figured out ways to bang her head hard enough against the sink to bleed to death or tie a noose in the vent.
“Would that be enough to kill me or was I already dead?” Solitary confinement is a way of saying “You are nothing, and now you have nothing”.
Solitary confinement is one of the things Ms Blakinger is most asked about during her time in prison and it is one of the things about US prisons that have been found to be inhumane by European courts.
In 2021, a Scottish judge blocked the extradition of an American accused of shooting a security guard because of his concerns about US prisons: persistent understaffing, unpaid forced labor, overreliance on isolation, inadequate food, sweltering temperatures and lack of independent supervision. . (Notably, Ms. Blakinger told this story and says she’s surprised this issue hasn’t been brought up many times before.)
“I can’t speak for everyone,” Ms Blakinger says, “but most people who do well after prison succeed despite the system, not because of it.”
For now, Ms. Blakinger will continue to cover the US criminal justice system from Texas. A recent story she told concerns a death row inmate, Ramiro Gonzales, who wants to donate a kidney before being executed on July 13. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice said “no.”
Ms Blakinger’s colleagues and friends often worry about how long she can continue to be beaten, given that it brings her back into the prison system almost daily physically and emotionally.
“There’s a limit to the number of years I can spend reliving my own trauma all the time,” she admits. “My work is dark. But on the other hand, that’s why it resonates so much when I manage to write a story that has an impact, because it has an impact on the people who now live in the places where I once was.
Ink corrections by Keri Blakinger was released in the US on June 7 and in the UK on July 7.