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A criminal justice reporter is using her background to build trust with men and women behind bars and to highlight conditions inside prisons. Special correspondent Christopher Booker reports from Texas for our series, “Searching for Justice.”
Now: how a criminal justice reporter is using her own background to build trust with men and women behind bars and to highlight conditions inside prisons.
Special correspondent Christopher Booker reports from Texas as part of our ongoing series Searching For Justice.
In Austin, Texas, it's a night to celebrate investigative journalism.
Keri Blakinger, The Marshall Project:
Sometimes, especially in a state like Texas, it is those investigative journalists that are the only meaningful oversight that exists.
And a chance to hear from a rising star in the world of criminal justice reporting, 38-year-old Keri Blakinger.
That's four Texas prisoners who have died in fires in the past year. And we would know about none of them if it weren't for investigative journalism and brave sources who come forward and take risks to share things with us.
Blakinger covers prisons for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on the criminal justice system. Her reporting has led to real change for people serving time.
In 2019, her examination of the conditions inside women's prisons helped The Washington Post win a National Magazine Award. And this 2018 investigation into prison dental care for The Houston Chronicle spurred Texas officials to start providing dentures to incarcerated people.
I didn't think that was possible. I didn't think that my reporting would actually have that much impact.
But, in 2010, it was Blakinger's own story that was making headlines. While a senior at Cornell University, in the midst of a nine-year drug addiction, Blakinger was arrested in Ithaca, New York, with about six ounces of heroin.
It almost feels like that day was a different person. Like, I remember it, obviously, in the first person, but, at this point, it doesn't even feel like it was still me anymore.
Like a character, almost?
Blakinger was kicked out of Cornell and convicted of criminal possession of a controlled substance.
Did the threat of arrest or prison ever enter your mind while you were using?
No, I think that, fundamentally, in order to do something as dangerous as shooting up heroin every day, you have to believe that odds don't apply to you, that you're not the person who's going to get arrested, that you're not the person who's going to overdose and die.
And in order to maintain in an addiction, you have to believe that these eventualities are not going to happen.
Blakinger says she first began using drugs as a teenager, growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she excelled in school and was a competitive figure skater with dreams of making it to the Olympics.
I think I definitely had an intense and obsessive personality. Still do. But I think that a sport like skating can draw it out in someone.
The persistence, like to an almost unhealthy degree, that success in competitive skating requires is kind of mind-blowing.
And I started working on a double axel in sixth grade. So, every day from the beginning of sixth grade to the beginning of ninth grade, I was failing hundreds of times at the same thing. And I think about how that amount of failure every day through all of middle school must necessarily sort of shape your personality.
By high school, Blakinger says she was struggling with depression and an eating disorder. Then, at 17, she split with her skating partner, and she started to unravel.
When I didn't have this one thing to be fulfilled by, to pour my soul into, I just went from being depressed to very actively wanting to die.
And I went from, like, I think I smoked pot once, did ecstasy once, and went right to heroin.
Blakinger wound up homeless, often selling drugs and sex to support her addiction.
After her arrest in 2010, she spent nearly two years behind bars. She details all of this in her brutally honest memoir, "Corrections in Ink," which was published earlier this year.
I realized that if I was telling the story first, I could tell it on my own terms.
Throughout the book, though, you make reference to how your circumstances behind bars could have been worse. How could they have been worse?
I think that my entire interaction with the criminal legal system would have gone very differently if I were a person of color.
And you can see that in almost every stage of the process. I think that I would have gone into that initial arrest with probably a longer criminal record even for the same behaviors. But then, when you get in, statistically, people of color are more likely to be put in solitary. That makes it harder to maintain ties with your family that can help you reintegrate when you get out.
And then, when you do get out after, having been sentenced to more time and doing more of that time, if you are a person of color, you're coming back into dealing with all of the systemic racism that already exists in the world outside of prison.
While locked up, Blakinger was able to kick her addiction, but she says it wasn't because she was incarcerated.
Prisons are drenched with drugs.
When I got to prison, I had someone who in the first week told me they could get me heroin and a needle if I wanted.
But by the time that I did get arrested, I was ready to do something different, and that didn't have anything to do with prison.
In 2012, Blakinger was released, and, shortly thereafter, started writing for the local Ithaca paper. Two years later, she graduated from Cornell with a degree in English.
But her big break came in 2016, when she was hired by The Houston Chronicle.
Nancy Barnes, Former Executive Editor, The Houston Chronicle:
She was just the hardest-working person in the newsroom, probably because she wanted to prove herself.
Nancy Barnes is the paper's former executive editor. She says Blakinger started as a general assignment reporter, but soon began covering the Texas prison system.
She understood what it felt like to live in that world, and she wanted to shine a light on that for others.
That personal experience remains a central focus of Blakinger's work, says Susan Chira, who is the editor in chief at The Marshall Project.
Susan Chira Editor in Chief, The Marshall Project: Just to give one example, in very early March of 2020, before lockdowns in New York City, Keri said, you can't socially isolate in prison or jail.
And so, on March 6, she and a colleague wrote a piece about this that I think was the first to make the point that COVID would be particularly disruptive for incarcerated people.
But Blakinger's good friend and former colleague at The Houston Chronicle, Chris Tomlinson says, because of her past, her work is often under intense scrutiny.
Chris Tomilson, The Houston Chronicle:
People are going to try to dismiss her. They're going to try to say, oh, we can't believe her because she is a felon.
And, for her, that means doubling down on accuracy. She over-reports everything.
But it just doesn't matter if the judge withdraws the date and no one appeals it.
Today, Blakinger often visits prisons across the country. And she's done dozens of interviews with men on death row.
This was from John Ramirez, a man who was executed in Texas. He sent me this, I don't know, a year or two ago.
She is also constantly receiving mail, usually from grateful prisoners, who pass along everything from holiday cards to story tips.
Not every story that I write is going to have impact or make a difference, but I can tell their stories, at a bare minimum.
And that means something to people who are behind bars, to people who otherwise don't have voices.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Christopher Booker in Austin, Texas.
Watch the Full Episode
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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