Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. This week we've been highlighting great books we've read this summer and the authors behind them. Today, a personal story about the criminal justice system.
Keri Blakinger: Even when they're quiet, jails have a distinct sound. Every whisper ricochets off the cinder block walls and heavy steel doors into a muffled cacophony. The echoing soundtrack of your mistakes in stereo.
Melissa: This is Keri Blakinger.
Keri Blakinger: I'm a reporter and the author of Corrections in Ink
Melissa: Corrections in Ink is Blakinger's memoir and it's about the time she spent incarcerated in New York State.
Keri Blakinger: Time melts, watches are banned. There is no clock. Sometimes there's a microwave that you can use to tell time, but sometimes the guards take that away. Maybe because you've pissed them off or maybe because other inmates want it, so instead sound becomes your sundial.
Melissa: Growing up, Keri was a rising star in competitive figure skating but an eating disorder and drug addictions sent her down a different path.
Keri Blakinger: The buzz clunk when the guards first pop the cell block door means it's 7:00 AM. The rolling lunch carts mean it's noon. The crackle of the intercom announcing count means it's 3:00 PM. Your day is metered out by the noises of incarceration. An inescapable score that restarts every day and plays on a seemingly endless loop. Even when they're quiet, jails have a distinct sound.
Melissa: When Keri Blakingerwas 26, she was arrested with a Tupperware full of heroin and sentenced to two years in prison. She spoke with me recently and talked about how time passes when you're doing time. What did you think imprisonment would be before you had the experience of being incarcerated?
Keri Blakinger: Not sure I thought a lot about it. Actually, I think I distinctly didn't think a lot about it. I think when you're in an active addiction, you have to tell yourself that these things don't happen to you. In order to keep taking these risks and doing such dangerous things, you have to tell yourself that statistics don't apply to you, that you are not going to get HIV from a dirty needle, that you are not going to get robbed, or that you are not going to overdose and die, or you're not going to get arrested and end up in jail or prison.
Melissa: Yet I think so many of us believe, particularly, I think, maybe for folks who don't have experiences of regularly visiting our loved ones, we think that it's about rules and that these are highly governed places and that part of the experience you write about is understanding how capricious it is.
Keri Blakinger: Yes, totally. Prison, well, and jail too is so much like its own kingdom in that even if there's rules or if there's policies or if there's a state commission that has some say in how these places are run, in the moment none of that matters. It is a kingdom behind cinder block and barbed wire and anything can happen there.
Melissa: One of the things that happened to you was time in solitary confinement. As much as you just read to us about the sound, can you tell us a bit about what you experienced in solitary?
Keri Blakinger: I think a lot of people have told me over the years since I've gotten out and have been talking about this, people say, "Oh, I like spending time alone. I wouldn't mind solitary that much," but solitary is not spending time alone. Solitary is more like being buried alive. You're in a room that's like, I don't know, the size of, maybe, a large bathroom. In my case there was neon white walls almost. There's no clock, you have no sense of time. The only voices you're hearing are muffled echoes shouting through the vents or the toilet or whatever noise comes in under your door.
I think one of the things about solitary is that it so fundamentally eats away at two of the really key things about what it means to be human. One of the ways that we see ourselves as human as is in relation to other people, like how we relate to other people, self versus other. Solitary cuts that off. You don't have that contact with other people anymore. It takes away so much of your agency and ability to make decisions and do things. You lose that sense of like self in relation to other or ability to relate to others and you also lose so much of your ability to have any agency. I think it's really disorienting to be in this situation that so fundamentally undermines what it means to be human.
Melissa: What does it mean to be human? Obviously, that's too big a question to fully answer, but I'm interested in the various answers that you may have found and refound and lost in the context of this experience.
Keri Blakinger: I think that one of the most powerful things about being human that stuck with me through prison is just the ability to be in community with other people, other humans. Some of the moments that really stand out to me when I was locked up are these rare moments of communal joy which do happen in prison. It's not every day, it's not all the time and it feels like you're stealing this moment of happiness from a place that is meant to prevent it, but there would be moments.
There was time- I hadn't been in very long and I was in the gym. I was very new to prison. I'd just gone from county jail to state prison and I was very new. -I was in the gym and I was there with another girl who was also new and we were on like the stair steppers, I think. We're just stepping away and there's music playing in the background. Then Kelly Clarkson's Since You've Been Gone, comes on.
Kelly Clarkson: Guess you never felt that way.
But since you've been gone,
I can breathe for the first time.
I'm so moving on.
Keri Blakinger: It was so wild but it was like a flash mob almost. Not dancing but just singing. Everybody started singing and you've got these tough women that have like done a lot of time over by the weight piles and stuff. Everybody was singing this and I looked at the girl next to me like, am I really seeing this? This is so wild. Prison, the musical? It was just this moment of everybody singing along and that community, that ability to relate to other people and exist in community with other people, I think, is one of the most enduring things about being human that you reach for even in prison.
Kelly Clarkson: Since you've been gone.
Since you've been gone.
Melissa: After Keri spent two years incarcerated in New York State, she finished her degree at Cornell University and became a reporter focused on prisons and jails. Now, the narrative of this memoir takes place over a number of years but it isn't linear. It flips between Keri's memories of being intoxicated and being incarcerated. I asked her why she chose this structure.
Keri Blakinger: When you get arrested, I think, you end up spending a lot of time playing back your life before. How I got here and even just remembering and yearning for the free world. The early days in jail, to some extent, you're living your life and then you're spending all this time remembering. You're having these flashbacks just like the flashback chapters. Also, I think time felt very much non-linear at that point. I was just coming off of drugs and I was in this very confusing disorienting place and this was after nine years of having been on drugs. Everything felt non-linear at that point.
Melissa: Keri writes about how her addictions and drug use were forms of self-harm and I couldn't help but think how striking it is that we use prison as punishment for self-harm.
Keri Blakinger: I've never thought of it in that framing but, yes, you're so right. I think that actually does a much better job of explaining what people get out, when they talk about trauma-informed care in jail or prisons or when they talk about the need for gender-responsive facilities that pay more attention to women's needs and specific traumas. I think the self-harm behaviors that you're describing would describe an even higher percentage of female prisoners than male. Yet prisons are structures that are traditionally built with men in mind in so many ways. They do badly for men, obviously, but they do even less, I think, to deal with women's specific needs, whether it's just basic healthcare needs or past sexual trauma.
Melissa: I'm wondering about the opportunity of those who are currently doing time to read your book. Whether or not it's available to folks.
Keri Blakinger: Yes, so this is a great question. I really wanted to make sure that my book would get to people in prison. That was really important to me in putting this out. We actually started a thing where you can order a book online and it will be set aside for it to be sent to someone in prison. I've been, for the past several months, collecting a list of people in prison who wanted copies. I think we've gotten about 500 copies funded that way so I've been working on that. So far, prisons have been letting in. There was one that there was a little confusion and there was some holdup and they said it was banned and then they said, "Oops, no it's not," and they let the girl have it.
It's gotten in New York, shockingly. I didn't think they'd let it in because part of it takes place there. Then it's gotten in in Texas and the BOP. However, it's in hardback right now. Many prisons don't allow hardback so I am currently only able to send it into the states that allow hardback. When it comes out in soft back then there's a whole other set of prisons that consider whether they're going to ban it then or not.
Melissa: During the years I hosted a television show and often would have guests who were themselves formerly incarcerated folks. Almost always, the flood of letters would come. The letters from incarcerated folk. I am assuming you must get a lot of those letters.
Keri Blakinger: I have so many. I have boxes. At one point the entire backseat of my car was filled with them. I'm staring at a pile right now. Yes, I get so many and a lot of them are things that it's like okay, maybe I earmarked this because I'll write about it later and I note the topic on the front and I have a whole filing system and I stash it away. Some of them are just thank yous. I get some really beautiful, kind thank you cards from people who are doing time and thank me for paying attention to them and giving them a voice. I get some really beautiful prison artwork too.
I was on fresh air one time and it was a little bit before Christmas and I mentioned that I'd gotten some Christmas cards. I think I said I'd gotten one Christmas card already, and people heard it and I got this flood of Christmas cards that year from all of these incarcerated people who heard that and were like, "Oh, you want more. We'll give you so many more." My desk that year was just covered with these amazing hand-drawn cards and cartoons of me. Somebody drew a little cartoon of me when I'd been in prison and my prison nickname was Harry Potter so they drew a little cartoon of me as Harry Potter.
Melissa: Why in the world was your nickname Harry Potter?
Keri Blakinger: [laughs] I guess people thought I looked like Daniel Radcliffe. [laughter] I don't know I guess I was pretty nerdy, reading and doing crosswords. Also, I had glasses. They weren't round but they were vaguely Harry Potter-ish, and I had short hair, so I think between the reading and the glasses and the short hair, that was enough.
Melissa: There are so many good parts of that. You just said something too, just now, people doing time. Talk to me about that phrase "doing time".
Keri Blakinger: I didn't realize how weird time is around jail and prison until I wrote it and realized how many times my descriptions of time come up in this book. The thing I thought about a lot when I was in and then a lot more right when I got out was just the fact that when you're locked up the only goal that matters every day, really, at the end of the day, is that time passed. You might have other things you needed to accomplish like you have school, you have other things you're trying to get done, but in the end, if you have an out date, if you have a possibility of getting out, then the only really, really important goal at the end of the day is that time has passed.
If you succeed in that, if you succeed in just letting time pass, you've won. You've done the most important thing you needed to for the day. I didn't realize how much that had been a guiding principle that we don't even think about until I got out and I was like, "Wow, I've just spent the past two years where the really most important thing I needed to accomplish every day was to just let time pass." Then shifting back to life where you're having goals other than just letting time pass and your metric for success is going to be something bigger than just time has passed.
That was a transition that I wasn't even expecting to have to think about. It didn't occur to me that this was a shift that I had made and that I was going to have to unmake.
Melissa: How do we correct corrections?
Keri Blakinger: This is such an unpopular answer but the reality is if we're treating people behind bars in inhumane ways, they're getting unidentifiable food, inadequate medical care, there's not enough staff to let them out for showers, some of that does involve spending more money. It'd be great to have pure people they need to spend this money on, but in some places, that's not the immediate reality. I live in Texas. We have 25,000 fewer people in prison now than we did before the pandemic. That is a huge and unprecedented population decrease but that still leaves us with around 120,000 people in prison.
If they're going to be in an environment that is not as dehumanizing as it is now, that's going to cost more money. That's not an answer that either side likes to hear. You don't want to spend more money on prisons but then progressives don't want to invest more money in prisons either/ I get both of those set of reasoning but the reality is that just to minimize the harms to people that are there now and people that aren't immediately going to be released, that does require some investment in those people. It doesn't have to be in the prisons, but in the people who are in the prisons.
Melissa: Keri Blakinger, a reporter for The Marshall Project and author of the memoir Corrections in Ink. Thank you for sharing with us, Keri.
Keri Blakinger: Thank you for having me.
[00:16:11] [END OF AUDIO]
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