State Bar of Texas Podcast
Keri Blakinger is a staff writer at the Marshall Project whose work focuses on prisons and jails....
In 1999, Rocky Dhir did the unthinkable: he became a lawyer. In 2021, he did the unforgivable:...
As a follow-up to her panel discussion at the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting 2022, Keri Blakinger joins Rocky Dhir to share more of her personal story and her perspectives on prisons in the United States. She discusses her incarceration experience, her passion for public records, and her newly released memoir, “Corrections in Ink.”
Keri Blakinger is a Texas-based journalist and the author of the “Corrections in Ink,” a memoir tracing her path from figure skating to heroin addiction to prison and, finally, to life as an investigative reporter covering mass incarceration.
Rocky Dhir: The following podcast episode contains frank discussions of sexual assault and life in prison.
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice with your host, Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hi, and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast. Keri Blakinger has lived her entire life on the ice. She glided on the frozen water as a young competitive figure skater only to have her life upended. Frozen as it were in place in Upstate New York as she coped with addiction, a drug conviction and a stint in prison. Today, she’s an investigative journalist in Texas for The Marshall Project, asking us all to freeze for a moment and focus our attention on America’s prison system and the inequities that she has identified for those housed within it.
She has also recently published her memoirs/autobiography, ‘Corrections in Ink’. She was a speaker at the State Bar’s 2022 annual meeting in Houston, and in case you missed her, well, we get another chance to sit down with Keri, hear her story and discuss her insights on our prison system. So Keri Blakinger, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being here.
Keri Blakinger: Hey, thanks for having me.
Rocky Dhir: Absolutely. So first of all, let’s talk for those who are uninitiated. What is The Marshall Project?
Keri Blakinger: It is a non-profit news outlet. I often describe it as being kind of like ProPublica but only criminal justice. Our whole focus is covering the criminal legal system.
Rocky Dhir: Interesting. Okay, and how long have you been writing for that publication?
Keri Blakinger: I’ve been at the Marshall Project since the start of 2020 and before that, some listeners might know me from my time at the Houston Chronicle.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. So you’ve written a thing or two about the prison system. So let’s first talk about something kind of fun. Let’s talk about ice skating. How did you get in to that and talk to us about your career? I know it ended at one point and that leads us to the next part of the story, but tell us about your ice skating career.
Keri Blakinger: Well, I got into it because my mom saw an article in a local newspaper when I was, I don’t know, in probably second or third grade and she was like, “Oh, this seems cool. Do you want to try taking some skating lessons?” And so I did, and I was obsessive and a bit of perfectionist, which is a really great combination of traits to have.
Rocky Dhir: That’s awesome. Okay. And where did you grow up?
Keri Blakinger: Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Keri Blakinger: So yeah, I got into it and as I got better, I started skating at bigger rinks. It’s a little further away, Hershey and Harrisburg then University of Delaware, which was at the time a major skating training center.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Keri Blakinger: Eventually, I started skate in Paris, which is where the guy throws you around and it looks all dangerous and stuff.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Keri Blakinger: And we competed at national twice when was in, I guess, 10th and 11th grade.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Keri Blakinger: So we are pretty good. And skating at that point was pretty much my whole life. I left school at 10 or 11 every day to go the rink and trained and I’d be there until five or six at night, and it was my whole world and the only sort of future I could imagine and really my whole identity.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Keri Blakinger: You know, when my partner decided to branch out and find another partner, I kind of fell apart because in skating there are so many more girls than guys that he could find a partner the next day and for me, it could be like weeks or months or never and of course, skating careers are short. You’re not going to be skating till your mid-30s, right? I remember there was a 23-year-old skater that we referred to as the old lady and that was —
Rocky Dhir: Okay, this hurts me. This hurts me. As a 47-year-old dude, I am cringing. But yeah, I see your point.
Keri Blakinger: So yeah, I knew that my career had a timeline. When I couldn’t find a partner after few weeks and that turned into months, I fell apart. I was very depressed and ended up getting into drugs in pretty short order, and that was sort of what I did off and on for the next nine years.
Rocky Dhir: You did get enrolled at Cornell University for college. So were you skating at Cornell or were you just an ordinary more like the rest of us.
Keri Blakinger: I was an ordinary mortal on heroine.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Right.
Keri Blakinger: I started college at Rutgers and took some semesters off here and there when I was sort of too deeply involved in drugs to be doing school. But then, I didn’t have any convictions. I had an arrest. I’ve been arrested with a small amount of drugs in New Jersey, but it was dismissed. It was a pre-trial intervention, did probation, got dismissed.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Keri Blakinger: So I didn’t have any convictions, no disciplinary actions at school. Like there was nothing on paper that would indicate how much I was struggling.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Keri Blakinger: And I applied to transfer to Cornell and got in the Cornell and continued getting high while I was there until I got arrested in 2010.
Rocky Dhir: Outside of drugs, what were you majoring in? What were you thinking you might do? Like, with your degree? What did you want to do with your career? Had you even giving any thought to that?
Keri Blakinger: Initially, I majored — at Rutgers, I double majored in philosophy and genetics.
Rocky Dhir: Oh, wow. Okay. That’s eclectic. Okay. That’s interesting.
Keri Blakinger: I don’t know why I thought this, but I wanted to do patent law. Like, I don’t know what I was thinking. But I like science a lot and I wasn’t actually good at lab work. So I was like, “Okay. So I’ll double major in philosophy and that will set me up well for going to law school.” That was my thought.
Rocky Dhir: If you’re not actually good in anything, being a lawyer is an amazing career path. Your head was in the right place on that score.
Keri Blakinger: So then when I was transferred, I was undergrad transfer. So it was to double major and still graduate in a reasonably timely fashion and I ended up switching to an English major mainly because I sort of didn’t know what else to and that was my parents were strongly felt like I should be an English major for whatever reason.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Keri Blakinger: So yeah. So I was majoring in English at Cornell and I was also working some for the student paper and I think it was in my mind that maybe journalism would be a path, but I wasn’t — I was very lost by that point. I wasn’t really set on what my exact future would be.
Rocky Dhir: Yes. This whole time, you’re doing heroine and maybe other drugs as well. So struggling with —
Keri Blakinger: Every drug. You know, any drug you put in front me. Yeah.
Rocky Dhir: Now, at some point, Tupperware was involved. So this police officer finds you with Tupperware, with heroine in it and I guess you’d walked to your apartment and you have this Tupperware with you. Do you know what made this police officer suddenly suspect you of something? I mean, somebody walking with Tupperware would not necessarily arouse suspicion to me.
Keri Blakinger: Well, I think somebody had called the cops about a suspicious person in the area from a few houses down from where I was.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Keri Blakinger: And the chain of events is not incredibly clear to me because I understand that it seems like somebody called the police from one house and I was several houses down outside walking down the street and yet, they came up and approach me which doesn’t seem responsive to that call.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Keri Blakinger: So I’m not clear — you know, I’ve never asked the cop 10 years later what did you do that. I mean, I might have looked high. I always look high, I’m sure. But yeah, I don’t know the exact — I don’t exactly how that transpired. I know there was a call and instead, he came over and talk to me.
Rocky Dhir: Because in your book, you talked about how you’re trying to hide the drugs and you’re trying to get away, but he eventually catches on to what you’re doing and this leads to your more shall we say, involved interaction with the criminal justice system.
Keri Blakinger: Yeah. I tried to throw the drugs under the nearest car. Well, I mean, I did throw under a car that is in the like, nearby parking lot and then someone spotted that occurring and went and fished them out and gave them to the cop. Then as I was getting arrested, I ate a whole bunch of pills that were in my pocket. So then I was extremely high for all of the arrest and don’t really have any sort of good — I mean, I have like snapshots of what I remember, but don’t have a sort of good complete narrative in my mind of what happened that morning. Other than that, it ended with me in the county jail.
Rocky Dhir: And eventually there’s — did you plead or was there a trial involved?
Keri Blakinger: Oh, I pleaded. You know, the initial offer was like two to four and then I pleaded to two and a half flat. So not that much of negotiation.
Rocky Dhir: Were you represented by counsel or were you doing this on your own?
Keri Blakinger: God, I was not doing this on my own.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Well, that’s — I mean, if you’ve been eating the pills, I’m like, okay, what did you agree to at this point? Did you have public defender or who was helping you at this point?
Keri Blakinger: Well, it was assigned counsel in that county.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Keri Blakinger: So I had assigned counsel. It was a retired federal prosecutor. He’d been an assistant USA in one of the districts in Virginia, and it’s funny because I was interviewing — recently, I was interviewing a state lawmaker in Virginia. Old dude who mentioned that he’d been a USA in Virginia and I was like, “Oh, wow! I wonder if you knew” — you know, I said my lawyer’s name and he was like, “Yes, I hired him.”
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Okay.
Keri Blakinger: Such a small world. But anyways. So yeah. So my lawyer was retired federal prosecutor who was just, who had moved to — in New York, she retire and was taking on some indigent defense work. So yeah.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. So you had a good lawyer on your side helping you with this, it sounds like. And so you end up with a two and a half year conviction, as it were. So you’re supposed to do two and a half years. Did you serve the full time or did you get –?
Keri Blakinger: Well in New York on a flat bid for a nonviolent offense, you do five to seven standardly. So I did 21 months, which was — I didn’t have to go in front of a parole board. It was really just like as long as I had done the bare minimum of what I was recommended to do, it was just a rubber stamp that I was going to get out.
Rocky Dhir: So let’s start with your very first night in prison after you’ve been convicted. What was the biggest surprise to you at that point? I mean, you’ve never been in prison. You’d been in county jail up until this point. What was that first night like? Describe that for us.
Keri Blakinger: Yeah, sure. I’d spent about 10 or 11 months in the county jail before I got transferred.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Keri Blakinger: And then when I got transferred to state prison, you do the first night in New York where all this is occurring. You do the first night in whatever the closest prison is, and then they move you to the max for like, classification and reception and all that good stuff. So that first night, they had a bunch of us who weren’t cleared to be in GP. It was maybe, I don’t know, 8, 10 of us, something like that. And they just sort of locked us away in one wing of an old building that almost looked like it could have been a college dorm. I remember it as having, like, wood floors and individual rooms and like, bunk beds in the rooms. It was almost like the worst college dorm ever with grading on the windows.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
Keri Blakinger: And we stayed up and just sort of talked, like late into the night. We were all looking out the windows at the more seasoned prisoners walking by, and we were sort of talking through what prisons we each hoped we ended up at in the end.
Rocky Dhir: Oh, wow. Okay.
Keri Blakinger: Just sort of like I think I said this in the book, but like the worst version of Harry Potter Sorting Hat.
Rocky Dhir: Right, of course.
Keri Blakinger: But then in the morning, they got us up and they were waiting to be loaded on the draft bus is what they call it. It’s the chain bus here in Texas. We’re waiting for the bus to go to the prison we’re going to end up at and I’m listening to two guards talk about this woman who was in solitary, and she had taken a dump on and mess all tray and pushed it back out the slot of the guards. I don’t know the back story. I don’t know if she was mentally ill. I don’t know if she was having like a mental break because she’d been in solitary too long. I don’t know what the back story is here. But in response, they turned off her water and the guards were talking about it and one of them was like, “Well, what’s she going to drink?” And the other one was like, “Oh, she can drink out of the toilet. If it’s good enough for my dog, it’s good enough for her.”
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Okay.
Keri Blakinger: That was such a shocking thing for me, and I sort of realized what that meant. What that means is there are no rules in prison. There’s a rule book and all these rules you have to follow, but in terms of oversight, in terms of making sure that they follow the rules, that the people in charge follow the rules so that you aren’t abused. There’s no one watching the hen house on that, and it’s sort of like prison is its own little kingdom and they can do whatever they want and you don’t really have any recourse. I mean, you can grieve it after the fact, but that’s not going to get you anywhere most of the time. And of course, if you grieve things, then you risk retaliation for that. So yeah, that was a big, I don’t know, a big sort of realization for me.
Rocky Dhir: Well, for most of us that sitting on the outside, I think the assumption is that if you just follow the rules, you just do your time and you stay out of trouble, you’ll be okay, the guards will treat you okay, and you’re all fine. Is that a myth or is there any truth to that?
Keri Blakinger: I feel like any lawyers can keep in touch with their clients after they go to state prison would know that’s not true. It can be true. You can be really lucky and just sort of get left alone. But there’s a lot of exceptions to that, right? In Texas, for instance, I know, and I wrote about this as a reporter, but I’ve also anecdotally heard it from many people who’ve done time. For a long time, they had disciplinary case quotas. So it didn’t matter what you were doing. If the guard was like, “Hey, I have to write up four people this shift,” they would just write you up for something. You could be doing nothing and sometimes they might actually pick someone who was doing nothing.
But also I had friends that had been sexually assaulted in prison and they didn’t do anything to bring that on, by the staff. I knew one girl who had gotten punched by another woman for invading her dreams. She didn’t do anything.
Rocky Dhir: Invading her dreams?
Keri Blakinger: Yes. And this is obviously an issue of mental health care. It is not the case to be clear that I was just sort of walking around expecting to be punched at any time. That was not generally a concern, but it is a reality that this sort of thing can happen. You have some predatory staff, you have some very mentally ill other prisoners. You have a lot of desperate people, too, when you have such a resource scarce environment and things like toilet paper are such a valued commodity that I’ve seen women offer blow jobs to guards in exchange for more toilet paper. I mean, that creates a level of desperation that things can happen and you can mind your business and generally have an easier time of it, but that’s not perfect. That’s not always enough.
Rocky Dhir: Is it different in men’s prisons versus women’s prisons from what you’ve been able to decipher in your work?
Keri Blakinger: Yeah, totally. It is different. There’re a few ways in which it’s different, and I think that the idea that men’s prisons are so violent, that is true, there are many men’s prisons that are just more violent. But I think it’s also important to understand the ways in which women’s prisons are horrible, I think are easier to overlook because they aren’t necessarily overt violence. There is violence in women’s prisons, but it is not as much. Like I know there was — right before I got to one of the units I was at, there was a woman who had been sexually assaulted by some other women with a broom handle in the bathroom and that is not common, but we also knew.
Rocky Dhir: It was there.
Keri Blakinger: Yeah, you knew it was there. So yeah, violence does happen in women’s prisons, but I think a lot more of it in women’s prisons was the sort of ongoing threat of sexual abuse from the staff and the mental games and humiliation, which I think are a little more pronounced in women’s prison than in men’s. Men’s, I think the problems are more around violence, violence with each other and also the staff. I mean, it’s not that staff are never violent with women, but I think the staff are a lot more likely to punch a male prisoner than to punch a female prisoner. I only know of one person that actually got beat up by staff in women’s prisons, but I know of many men that that has happened to. And of course, this is sort of inherently anecdotal because there’s not really solid data around abuse because so much of it is not reported.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Keri Blakinger: And the other, I think big difference actually, is also the way that race works out and the existence of gangs.
Rocky Dhir: I wanted to ask about that. So yeah, please. Shed some light on the race issue and how that end up.
Keri Blakinger: And those are related things, right? So in men’s prison, there’s a lot more gangs. There really weren’t gangs per se in women’s prison. But in men’s prison there are gangs and a lot of them are racially based, and I think that makes race more of an issue. Like in women’s prisons, you could have friends of different races, and most people did. And sometimes there were — it seems like when there were problems, they did often cross racial lines. Like it was often like a black woman and a white woman having a dispute or something or two girlfriends that would be the other thing is dating in prison caused a lot of the drama in women’s prisons. But I think that the gang structures mean that race is more of an issue in men’s prisons, but it also means that there’s a lot more contraband in men’s prisons because they have the structures in place to have a steady flow of contraband. Like women don’t tend to have a big structure of people that can help bribe the guards to get in cell phones, for instance. So there are not cell phones in women’s prisons on the same level as there are in men’s prisons. I’ve actually in all the dozens of guys and all the dozens of prisoners that have reached out to me with contraband phones, none of them have been women.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
Keri Blakinger: There’s drugs, but there’s less drugs. And I think it’s kind of — one of the things is that because there’s less violence and less contraband and fewer drugs, the staff end up picking on women or punishing them for much more trivial things. It’s not like they just don’t write them up because they’re not fighting and not smuggling in cellphones, they just write them up for contraband make up or having too many pairs of earrings.
And there is data to back this up. I mean, my anecdotal experience and my years of reporting would lead me to this conclusion anyways. But there are studies around this, around the fact that women tend to be disciplined in prison for much smaller things which kind of goes back to what I was saying before about how in men’s prisons we recognize that they’re bad because of the violence, but I think in women’s prisons they can be bad because you’re going to spend — like I had a friend who spent 30 days in solitary confinement, lost your parole date and spent four and a half extra months in prison because of one extra pair of earrings.
Rocky Dhir: Got it.
Keri Blakinger: So that’s like a different kind of abuse and terror.
Rocky Dhir: I guess that brings us to another issue which was your talk at the annual meeting for the State Bar of Texas and your panel and what you guys were discussing so that that way lawyers in Texas can kind of get a sense of how these issues might affect their clients or affect their cases. Before we get there, let’s take a quick break and hear from our sponsor and then we’ll be back with Keri Blakinger and we’re going to talk a bit about her talk at the annual meeting.
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And we’re back. We’re back with Keri Blakinger talking about her work to highlight prison reform and what needs to be done and also talking about her new book, “Corrections in Ink.” So Keri, talk to us about your talk at the 2022 State Bar of Texas annual meeting. You run a panel and tell us about the panel and what was your message to lawyers on that particular discussion.
Keri Blakinger: I was ranting about open records.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. Well, tell us about that. What’s the issue that we need to be aware of? For a lot of lawyers, we’re not familiar with every area of law so it kind of helps to hear from somebody who’s got a perspective on that.
Keri Blakinger: Yeah. I was actually surprised in my years of reporting I didn’t realize that most lawyers don’t have to deal with open records a lot.
Rocky Dhir: It’s true.
Keri Blakinger: I didn’t realize that until lawyers would reach out to me for advice on open records.
Rocky Dhir: You sent them an invoice and say, “Here’s $300 an hour.” That would have been justice.
Keri Blakinger: I mean, I have sort of — I’ve done a few CLEs on open records and I have sort of longer more nuance points but I think that at a minimum, the sort of starting point is open records are obviously not like discovery and when you read the law and you look at what should be releasable, it can really vary a lot and there is some exceptions that are applied in some ways that are not commonsense and are sometimes very well stablished and you’re not actually going to get around them. So my advice is typically to find someone and probably a reporter honestly who puts in a lot of records requests to the agency that you’re trying to get stuff from and reach out to them. Maybe they have some of the stuff around that you need or maybe they can tell you what you can actually get and what you can’t.
And also if you’re writing, if you’re referred, if you put in a records request, the agency refers it to the AG and you decide to write a response letter. The ACLU has written some pretty good response letters that I would suggest just like lifting language from because some of those exceptions that are commonly used by some of these agencies are used by multiple agencies. Like, one of the common ones is under investigation. That one is kind of hard to object to because often you can’t prove or disprove it. But anticipating litigation, that is one that agencies love to overuse because they just say anticipating litigation when they have no basis for saying that.
And the ACLU of Texas wrote a great response letter in a case where they’re trying to get records from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Savannah Kumar wrote the letter, and they did a really good job of laying out responses to all of the sort of main reasons TDCJ tends to cite including this anticipating litigation when they really have no basis for anticipating it. So I often recommend people to check out that.
Rocky Dhir: So check out ACLU and I guess also look at what successful basis have been used to overcome these objections to disclosure of open records.
Keri Blakinger: It feels so random honestly.
Like wins feels so random. The times that I have gotten that the AG has sided with me have often been times where I didn’t even write a letter.
Rocky Dhir: Interesting. Okay.
Keri Blakinger: And sometimes it’s the ones that I didn’t think I’d win on. Like, I didn’t write a letter because I didn’t think I’d win and then they sided with me anyways. Of course, if that happens, the agency can still sue the AG to prevent disclosure which did happen like three times in the past two years that I’ve ended in court after the agency disagreed with the AG.
Rocky Dhir: Now, in the time we have remaining, let’s talk about your book, “Corrections in Ink.” I’ve had the chance to read a quick excerpt about it but I would love to hear more about what prompted you to write it and without giving away any of the contents or any of the really amazing parts about it because you’re a tremendous writer by the way. So without talking about all that, what do you want readers to walk away with when they read that book? There’s probably a message in there, maybe a couple of messages. What do you want them to know about?
Keri Blakinger: Yeah, I mean I hope that when people in prison read it, that they read it and see someone like them who had a second chance and they know that second chances are possible and I hope that when people who are not in prison read it, they understand some of the systemic barriers that prevent more people from realizing second chances because one thing I don’t want is I don’t want people to read it and say, “Oh, well she did well after prison so why doesn’t everyone?” So I try to take great pains to explore some of the systemic barriers that prevent more people from being successful and I hope that people understand that when someone does well after prison, it isn’t spite of prison and not because of prison.
Rocky Dhir: Do you think you just got lucky or do you think that there’s things prisoners can do to actually make themself successful when they get out?
Keri Blakinger: Well, I mean, sure, there’s things you can do. I mean, some of it is also about race privilege, class privilege. I think that where you’re living can have a big influence and there’s so little reentry support. I mean, there’s a lot of things I had working in my favor and the reality is as dark as this book is, I’ve also fully recognized that I had a pretty easy time in prison. I was in a New York woman’s prison. I was not in Telford Unit. I was not in Stiles Unit. I was not in some terrible maximum-security prison in a southern state because that’s a much worse prison experience. Our prisons in the south here are whole different world from some of the prisons in more progressive states that have been more sincerely invested in creating main conditions that are actually conducive to rehabilitation.
Rocky Dhir: So final question before we close out Keri is with having a prison record and having a conviction, how do you get past that when you’re applying for jobs or when you’re looking to work with people? Obviously, it’s very germane to the work that you’re doing but for prisoners in general, how do they get past that initial barrier of, “Oh, I’ve been convicted of a felony” and then people just don’t want to hire them.
Keri Blakinger: I don’t have any advice on that. I know that I have had applied to more jobs than many of my peers with equivalent experience over the years. I know that 10 years later, I still have a hell of a time finding housing.
Rocky Dhir: Wow, okay.
Keri Blakinger: Just because I’m successful doesn’t mean that I don’t face these barriers. I’ve just been incredibly fortunate to have support and managed to find people that have been willing to give me a second chance, but finding those people is just difficult and not everyone has the resources to get there. So I don’t know that I have any specific advice on that but it is even for me has been harder than it might appear.
Rocky Dhir: Well, Keri Blakinger thank you so much for taking the time to join us and for explaining your perspective not only on America’s prison systems but as an added bonus about open records request and of course best of luck with your book, “Corrections in Ink” and I’m sure it’s going to be wildly successful and obviously for those of you who are listening that might want to get a copy of it, Google it. It’s riveting. I’ve read and excerpt and it is amazing. So Keri, thank you so much.
Keri Blakinger: Thanks for having me.
Rocky Dhir: And of course, I want to thank you fortuning in and encourage you to stay safe and be well. If you like what you heard today, please rate and review us in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. Until next time, remember life’s a and journey folks. I’m Rocky Dhir signing off.
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|Published:||August 4, 2022|
|Podcast:||State Bar of Texas Podcast|
|Category:||Access to Justice , News & Current Events|
State Bar of Texas Podcast
The State Bar of Texas Podcast invites thought leaders and innovators to share their insight and knowledge on what matters to legal professionals.