book review

A Memoir of Prison Time, Delivered With a Note of Apology

Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman

When you hear snippets of Keri Blakinger’s story — white girl, Cornell student, busted with a huge amount of heroin, spends under two years in prison, gets out, graduates — you may say, “This is what happens to privileged white girls who ‘misbehave.’” Or even, “a nauseating example of white privilege.” These were among the tweets that followed a 2014 Ithaca Voice story about Blakinger with this headline: “Cornell senior arrested with $50K of heroin graduates after 21 months behind bars.”

In Blakinger’s memoir, Corrections in Ink, she reflects on those mean-spirited tweets. “I realized they were not wrong about the privilege,” she writes. “I thought back on all my interactions with the system over the years, the moments that could have gone differently if I were Black, or did not have money … Everybody should get the second chances I got, but most people do not.” That Voice story was published before Blakinger made her return, before she became an investigative journalist whose reporting created real change for people in prison. Over the years, Blakinger — now a staff writer for the Marshall Project — has told her personal story in bits and pieces, in personal essays and radio interviews. In 2020, she talked to me for an episode of This Is a Collect Call From Sing Sing, a podcast I hosted over the phone in prison, where I’m serving a 28-years-to-life sentence. I remember thinking, Wow! This woman has got to write a book. And now she has.

Corrections in Ink begins in chaos with the incident that changed her life: Blakinger trying to find a vein, nodding out, picking scabs, bleeding, scrambling for a cigarette, and strolling down the street with a Tupperware full of heroin, right into a cop’s cuffs. Blakinger had an eight ball of blow and six ounces of heroin. When I used to sell dope in Brooklyn, over 20 years ago, it went for about $80 a gram wholesale; six ounces was worth $13,440. Street value? Well, out of a gram, you could bag up two bundles, which is 20 waxed $10 bags. So it was a street value of about $33,600. But a New York City dime of dope might go for double the price in Ithaca. Point is, she had a lot of it.

Blakinger grew up in the safe suburbs of Pennsylvania. Her mom went to Cornell and was a grade-school teacher, her dad a Harvard-educated lawyer. Blakinger attended good schools, had a curfew, was a figure skater, competed in nationals. Bulimia helped her cut weight until she couldn’t cut it on the ice. “I was an aspiring Olympian,” she writes, “then in the blink of a dopey eye, I was not.” At Harvard Summer School, of all places, she went all good-girl-gone-bad and spiraled into drugs: “Pot. Speed. PCP. Pills. Crack. Coke. But the goal was heroin. Not so much because I was craving the drug as because I was craving the darkness.”

When we think of Ivy Leaguers like Blakinger — who went from that summer school to rehab, to Rutgers (where she lived in a sober dorm), to relapse, to Cornell — we don’t think of them doing sex work, shooting up, or selling blow and dope. We don’t hear of their apartments getting raided, of their being robbed at gunpoint, overdosing in a motel room, or leaping off a bridge with a 98-foot drop to a shallow rock creek. Through it all, Blakinger remained a good student.

Her book’s prose is utterly readable. Its structure braids chapters about Blakinger’s jail time with backstory until her past catches up and we seamlessly find ourselves in prison alongside her. With Corrections in Ink, you get what you came for. In some of the flashback chapters, we’re yanked into wild scenes. Here’s Blakinger rolling on ecstasy: “I’m lying on a roof, naked, in the midnight rain — and grinning ear to ear … I can hear a universe of chaos inside each droplet of water falling around me.” Here she is at a fetish party: “I’m sitting on the floor of a crowded penthouse in lower Manhattan and some middle-aged guy I don’t know is licking my feet.” Blakinger hips me to how humiliating prison is for women, writing about “the humbling act of squatting and coughing for a stranger several times a week” and how, “if you were on your period, you had to take out your bloody tampon and put it on the floor so the guard could be sure you were not smuggling anything back from your visit” — an experience she says prison officials later denied was real.

At times, I felt Blakinger was apologizing for writing about her lived experience in a criminal-justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color. While white privilege did help her avoid scrutiny from the law, it also enabled a decade of uninterrupted hard-drug use. Blakinger’s privilege could easily have landed her among the astonishing number of dead white Americans who, like my brother Eugene, have overdosed during America’s generational opioid epidemic — a rate that exceeded the one for Black Americans until very recently.

Truth is, Blakinger is a white woman who’s lucky to be alive. The institution of corrections fails to offer any real cathartic programs for addicts. But it does provide a sobering time-out many of us need. I sometimes wonder what would have become of me if I hadn’t gotten locked up 21 years ago. I was selling drugs like Blakinger, but I also shot and killed a man. If I had been acquitted — which, at my first trial, I almost was — I could have wound up dead. The system is broken. It also worked in my case. To me, the fact that Blakinger has made a career of criticizing the institution that probably saved her life is the paradox of the book, one that she doesn’t acknowledge. It’s the paradox of my life, too.

Blakinger was not locked up for long, yet she quickly realized the universal pointlessness of jail. “Coming back to the sharp corners of real life after a blurry decade of drug use is a process,” Blakinger writes. “No matter how much you want to start over … The clack of cell keys does not teach you remorse. The clash of a steel door does not bring you redemption. There is no soundtrack here for that. If you want one, you’ll have to write it yourself.” When Blakinger transfers to prison, she discovers the punitive soundtrack of corrections and “the constant threat of a write-up for violating rule number 109.10” — a minor infraction for being “out of place.”

“Usually, they shouted it in a sort of shorthand,” Blakinger writes, “hollering the number and nothing else: ‘109.10! 109.10!’” In Sullivan Correctional Facility, the max joint where I’m serving time, when they write you a misbehavior report, you sit before a lieutenant at a kangaroo-court hearing in an office called “disciplinary”; when you’re found guilty, you’re charged five bucks. The only time they talk to you is when they’re punishing you.

The real ridiculousness of it all is that so many of us — emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually voided — are left to go it alone. “The whole premise of prison began to seem absurd: Locking hundreds of traumatized and damaged women in together and threatening them constantly with additional punishments is not rehabilitation,” Blakinger writes. “It is not corrections. It is not public safety. It is systemic failure.”

For me, the lingering conflict in the book is when Blakinger telescopes out from her specific story and examines systemic racism in prison and policing, then brings it back to herself. At one point, she acknowledges how the facilities located in rural areas were run by white staff but housed mostly Black and brown people. She cites a 2016 New York Times investigation that revealed how, in most New York prisons, Black and Latino people were issued misbehavior reports and served time in solitary at higher rates. These journalistic digressions are informative, but the way she inserts them takes away from her own difficult experiences. When it comes to feeling marginalized, prison has a pretty equalizing effect on us all. What’s more, in some prison circumstances, Blakinger might have been a minority. She was called Harry Potter, referred to as a “he” — not her preferred pronoun — and bullied by her bunkie. At times, I’m sure the color of her skin felt like a liability.

While she doesn’t harp on it, I know she had plenty of fear. Many of the women she was with were loud and tough and angry. They had lived harder lives, unheard and unseen: “I knew about the girl who ate glass,” she writes, “the girl who had sex with her sisters, the girl who was so illiterate she could not dial a phone.” I wanted Blakinger to write more personally about her privilege: It must have struck constant cords of shame in her, as it has in me, to have had tremendous opportunities and yet land in a place where most had none. It becomes heartbreaking and confusing when your Black and Brown prison mates look at you and sometimes say shit like, “Yo, you look like you don’t even belong here.”

The formerly incarcerated folks who are creative enough to recognize the moment we’re in — aspiring poets, journalists, filmmakers, podcasters — must learn that leaning into the internal and external conflicts of the convict experience will give them an advantage. Blakinger realizes this, and it’s why she has succeeded. “I would not hide from my past,” Blakinger writes. “I would be relentlessly honest and open about it. If I told my story — on my own terms — then no one could use it against me. I would own it.”

After Blakinger got out, an editor from the Ithaca Times reached out to her, looking to write about women in jail. The editor then saw that Blakinger had written for the Cornell paper and offered her a job. Blakinger also applied to finish her undergraduate degree; after she graduated, she was hired at the Daily News, where she wrote an investigative story about a woman who was raped at Rikers that led to the attacker’s conviction. For the Houston Chronicle, she wrote about Texas’s broken dental services and got prisoners dentures. She wrote about a progressive women’s detention center in California for a prison-themed issue of The Washington Post Magazine, which ended up winning a National Magazine Award. At the Marshall Project, she mostly writes edgy, traditional reportage about prisons and has developed a substantial roster of inside sources across the country.

I think of the way Blakinger describes herself as a kid: Mom and Dad taking turns driving her to figure-skating practice with Fresh Air playing in the background. You read that and think this girl had what she needed and should never have spun off the ice into self-destructive mayhem. But addiction, which leads many of us to criminality, can affect anyone. That Blakinger made it back from the brink and became a journalist who shines a spotlight on people in prison — one who would eventually appear on Fresh Air herself — is a real comeback. Her career, a higher calling full of purpose and service, probably exceeds the success she would have had if she’d never fallen so hard.

A Memoir of Prison Time, Delivered With a Note of Apology