Books

Finding Joy While Incarcerated

Author Keri Blakinger recounts her time in prison in her new memoir, Corrections in Ink.

Corrections in Ink author, Keri Blakinger.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Macmillan and Ilana Panich-Linsman.

Listen to Political Gabfest:

Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. This month, Emily Bazelon talks with author Keri Blakinger about her new memoir, Corrections in Ink which recounts Blakinger’s path from Olympic ambitions, to heroin addiction, to prison, and ultimately a return to life on the outside.

This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emily Bazelon: So you’re in this jail and there are a lot of things about this jail that are awful. On the other hand, you were able to write a ton, you kept a journal, you were doing the crossword puzzle, you were managing to run several miles every day just by jogging up and down the corridor, and then you start to fear that you’re going to be boarded out. Can you explain what that is and why that was such a potential problem?

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Keri Blakinger: Yeah. In the jail I was in they had more inmates than they did cells, which is a pretty common problem in a lot of jails and prisons. Whenever they had too many people, they would send the extras to another county.

Usually they would start with the women because they had fewer cell blocks designated for women. So if you were in the Tompkins County Jail in 2010, but also many years before and many years after, you were sort of under a constant threat of getting sent to another county, which was so much worse than it would sound. First of all, there are the little things: you’d lose all your property. You can’t take anything with you, so if you’ve got shampoo, if you’ve got stamps, if you’ve got food—any of these sort of basic things, you can’t take them with you.

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But beyond all that, the thing that I think we were all the most worried about was that when you got boarded out to another jail, they would put you in solitary for the first, anywhere from three days to two weeks, depending on which jail you went to. Solitary confinement is something I still have nightmares about more than 10 years later.

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That comes across so clearly in the book, and I was thinking about how solitary confinement is a form of torture and yet it’s also just a routine part of how these facilities operate.

It is. I think a lot of people think of solitary and they think, “Oh, I like spending time alone. Solitary is just like, checking out, taking a break. It’s like getting some time alone.” It does not feel that way, or at least it did not to me. I think about this a lot now because I cover death row and those guys are in solitary for decades sometimes.

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One of the things that solitary does is it takes away some of the most fundamental things about being human. So much of how we define ourselves, as people, is based on how we relate to, and interact with, other humans and how we make decisions and choices and take actions. When you are alone in a cell with four walls, you’re not interacting with other people. You’re not taking any actions or making any decisions. All of the things that are at the core of how you define yourself as a human are just taken away and it’s like you are just a brain in a vat or just sort of a mind in a box.

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In 2011, you got transferred to prison. You were at Bedford Hills in New York state and, without sort of romanticizing any part of this experience, you describe a kind of moment of relief at the prison when some of the women you were doing time with figured out how to give themselves a moment of joy one day. What happened that is vivid in your memory?

I had made one friend in prison at that point and we’d only been there a week or two. We went to the gym and there were stair steppers in the indoor gym, and we were on the steppers next to each other and the radio was playing. Then the Kelly Clarkson song came on, “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and the first few lines go by and then when it gets to the chorus, the whole gym started singing along at once, like shouting out the chorus and it was like a flash mob, but in prison! I was so shocked because these seemed like such hardened women who had—this was a maximum security prison.

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I was new and this was not at all what I was expecting. It seemed like I was imagining it. I looked at my friend and we just sort of looked at each other in confusion like, “Is this really happening?” But it seemed like such a joyous outburst, and there are moments like that in prison. Your average day would be described as boredom punctuated by bad things and fear and terror, but there are moments of joy and I do think it’s important to recognize them because that’s also part of life. The sum of prison can still be horrible even if there are these moments of humanity with people figuring out how to steal these moments of joy in these places that are essentially built to prevent that.

To listen to Emily Bazelon’s full interview with author Keri Blakinger, subscribe to the Slate Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts, or listen below.

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