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Prison reporter Keri Blakinger reflects on her time in incarceration in new memoir

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you pay attention to news stories about prison life, you may notice one byline pop up a lot - Keri Blakinger. If you're familiar with her work, it's hard to ignore the connection she seems to forge with the population she covers, her depth of understanding. And maybe that is because this longtime prison reporter comes to her beat from a special vantage point. She had been incarcerated herself for a couple years in New York for drug possession. How Blakinger's life carved a path from Olympic figure skating dreams to drug addiction and then to prison is told in wrenching detail in her new memoir, "Corrections In Ink." Just a note - this conversation will touch on some really hard topics, including some of the challenges that Blakinger faced as a high-achieving teenager.

KERI BLAKINGER: I struggled with depression pretty young as well. And, you know, there were some suicide attempts over the years. And I think that my sort of default setting at an early age was a very dark response to a variety of stressors.

CHANG: That darkness intensifies when her competitive skating career ends, and it gives way to a decade-long, self-destructive freefall. She writes, she decided to just give in to that decay, to be radioactive.

BLAKINGER: I think what I meant when I thought that and when I felt that and when I wrote that was that on the one hand, I was - you know, I had been very recently, like, sort of trying to live life as such an overachiever. Now, it was, like, instead of turning all that energy towards success, I was sort of turning it all towards self-destruction and just decaying but in just almost over the top sort of spectacular way. Like, I was like, I'm going to - you know, I'm going to end up living on the streets and, you know, doing all these just really outrageous things that seemed like this wasn't just a kid sort of quietly doing drugs in their room and, like, trying to hide it from their parents, you know. I went to a really extreme place about it pretty quickly, as if I was - it's almost like I was, like, trying to go out with a bang. And instead, I ended up sort of decaying for, you know, years.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, I want to turn to your description of your couple years in prison. Your life suddenly veers - right? - in 2010 when you get caught with a Tupperware full of drugs and you're arrested. You're how old at this point? Remind me.

BLAKINGER: Twenty-six.

CHANG: Twenty-six. OK. You're incarcerated for about two years. And, you know, you bring up this point - we think of prison as a place where there would be the most rules. But you write behind bars, there are no rules. Sure, there's a rule book and there are things you cannot do. But when it matters, no one is watching. Tell me about that.

BLAKINGER: Yeah, what I meant by that is that if someone is going to do something against the rules, whether it's, you know, prisoner or in most cases, I meant that in the context of staff, there's no oversight. You know, no one's going to stop a guard from being unnecessarily cruel, invasive or abusive. If you are getting strip searched and the guard makes you pull out your tampon, even though that's not the policy and they just make you do that, there's no one in that moment to stop it from happening. And that's what I mean by, like, there are no rules because in the moment, they can pretty much always do whatever they want.

CHANG: Right. This especially becomes clear in solitary confinement. Like, another thing that you learned during your time in incarceration is that solitary confinement, it's not just about being alone. And you have this point where you're like, yeah, if you told me earlier in my life that being in solitary is just some time alone, I probably wouldn't have minded. But you realize there's - it's a totally different experience than anything you could have imagined. Can you describe what it felt like, what it looked like, maybe what it smelled like?

BLAKINGER: So I walked in this room and it's, you know - I don't know - the size of an elevator, the size of a bathroom. And the walls are neon white. There's a little bunk in the one corner - or on the one side, and then there's a sink-toilet combination metal thing on the other side. And there's no clock. There's, you know, no possessions. There's nothing to do. And I think I had a Bible, and then eventually I got someone to give me a copy of "Sea Biscuit." And that was all I had, you know, to read or to do the entire time. And there was a window slit near the top of the wall over the bunk. But if you stood on the bunk to look out it, that was against the rules and you would get yelled at. And I - just as soon as the door shut behind me, I just sort of burst out into tears because I immediately realized how maddening and claustrophobic this was, especially with no clock. Like, you just had no sense of the passage of time.

CHANG: What got you through the short time that you were in solitary you think?

BLAKINGER: I - this is a really dark answer. I think it was only because I could not figure out a way to actually kill myself in that cell. I think if I had been able to figure that out, I don't think I would have made it through.

CHANG: Wow. You have covered prisons now for quite some time. What drives the work that you're doing now? Like, what in your mind is your ultimate purpose as you move forward in your work?

BLAKINGER: To me, it's just been so deeply meaningful to be able to tell stories about people who are in the places that I've been and to help amplify those voices and, you know, make their experience of incarceration maybe some bit less awful or more productive than mine was.

CHANG: And how often do the people you report on, when they read your story, how often do they come back to you and they say something like, no one would have been able to write this story like this unless they too were in prison at one point in their life? Do you get that kind of feedback a lot?

BLAKINGER: I get a lot of different feedback. I get a lot of jail mail. And, you know, one of my favorites that I think sort of encapsulates something was I sometimes get letters that'll be addressed to the reporter who did time, you know, or the reporter who was in prison. And I think, you know, those are not the sort of gushing thank-you's and the hand-drawn cards that I get because I get those too, and I love them. But I think that that - the fact that they think of me that way really says something. Because that's the thing about me that I think helps them know where I'm coming from when I tell these stories.

CHANG: Keri Blakinger's new memoir is called "Corrections In Ink." Thank you so much for sharing this time and your life with all of us.

BLAKINGER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINA LOVE SONG, "MY CITY")

CHANG: And if you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or the crisis text line by texting home to 741741. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.