Works of Justice Podcast: Keri Blakinger of The Marshall Project
KATE CAMMELL: So, Keri, thank you so much for joining us today. You’re a reporter at The Marshall Project, so I’m curious about what your path into journalism looked like.
KERI BLAKINGER: Well, for me, I think I first started writing for the local newspaper when I was in high school. There was a section of the paper that was mostly written by teenagers. It was a lot of movie reviews, book reviews, and some feature-y things. I started doing that, and I liked it even though it certainly wasn’t hard news. And then from there, I guess I didn’t really do anything with journalism when I was in college initially because there wasn’t a strong student newspaper at Rutgers, but then I transferred to Cornell, and they had a strong student newspaper there. So I got involved—even though I was also addicted to drugs at that point, so I was doing heroin and also working at the student newspaper and marginally attending classes, I guess.
Anyways, so after college, I got arrested and ended up doing a little under two years in prison, but then when I got out, there was an editor from the local newspaper and Ithaca who was trying to write a story about women in jail, and she asked if she could come out and interview me. I talked to her, and afterwards, she was like, “Hey, I Googled you. I read some of your previous stuff from the student newspaper. You seem pretty good. Do you want to try writing for us?” So I was about a year out of prison, I think, at that point, and I said, “Sure,” and started covering the small-town board meetings in upstate New York and towns with like one stoplight and like 5,000 people, and the biggest issue is backyard chickens and that sort of thing, but I really liked it anyway. And, from there, I just, I stuck with it. I went to the New York Daily News and then to the Houston Chronicle, and I’m currently still in Houston, but working for The Marshall Project.
CAMMELL: Very cool. And so through all these different newspapers that you’ve worked at, have you covered the same thing, or did it kind of change over time? And I guess I’m wondering what stories you’re focusing on now within criminal justice?
BLAKINGER: I mean, it’s evolved over time. I started with doing general assignment at a small paper, like I said. So I was doing a lot of government, municipal government-type stuff. And then, when I went to the New York Daily News, I was doing national breaking news. So it was basically just sort of the six or seven worst things that happened in the country on any given day—a lot of aggregation, but very depressing aggregation. And, I also did some coverage of the New York prison system and Rikers Island a little bit when I was there. I jumped in to help the existing Rikers Island reporter Reuven Blau, who was amazing and is now at THE CITY.
So I was still very much a generalist that when I came to the Houston Chronicle, and I started here at in Houston as a general assignment reporter. And then after a year when I got hired permanently, because I’d started on a fellowship when I got hired permanently, they were like, “Hey, why don’t you take like a mini beat or something? Our death penalty reporter just retired. Do you want to take over for that?” And I was like, “Sure, sounds perfect.” And ’cause it seems like a very defined beat that wouldn’t be a whole job, and it was an area that interested me and was still technical and complicated to cover, but there’s very human stories involved, right? So it was sort of exciting, and it was overlapping into prisons a little bit, which was at least somewhat interesting to me. But I didn’t really have the intent to be a prisons reporter. And then it just expanded—it was like, “Can you stop writing so many death penalty stories?” So then it was like, “Okay, I’ll do prisons. And I expanded into prisons, and then it was like, “Well, okay, can you do jails or mental health?” And they kept being like, “Stop writing so many prison stories.” So I kept expanding to more criminal justice, and by the time I left and came to The Marshall Project, I had become very much a criminal justice generalist, I guess.
And now at The Marshall Project, I’m doing a lot of prisons—I think it’s changed. I think the coronavirus has changed our job descriptions a little bit. I probably wouldn’t be doing a little more sort of generalist criminal justice anywhere. But, since this happened, we’ve all had to take specific beats within criminal justice, and so, I’m sort of responsible for the prisons and BOP part of it.
CAMMELL: And covering the criminal justice system—I don’t know if you feel this way too, but sometimes I feel like the coverage or conversation about criminal justice focuses a lot on men who were incarcerated, or just like the criminal justice system as a whole. So I want to ask you specifically about issues that are particular to women’s prisons and just issues that you’ve experienced personally, too.
BLAKINGER: I think there’s a few reasons that men get more coverage. First of all, men obviously make up a bigger part of the system, but I also think that, okay, women, women’s prisons—and I don’t have data on this, and there’s a few reasons the data would probably be difficult to parse—but women’s prison, sort of in my experience, experience of my friends that I’ve talked to, tend to have less con, less cell phones, and less drug contraband than men’s prisons just because women tend to not have the sort of means to get it in, and that means that they’re harder to reach through. Like illicit means, like you’re less likely to get a contraband cell phone call from a women’s prison. So all of these, and if you think about it, all these Facebook Live videos you see popping up during coronavirus, like you’ve seen a lot of them out of prisons. They’ve all been men’s prisons. And I mean, I think there’s a number of reasons for that, but that does seem to be a trend that I’ve observed. But also, women seem often less likely to reach out to the media. Not that it doesn’t happen, but this is something that I noticed when I was on the inside. This is something that I see in just the proportions of my mail, because I get a ton of jail mail, and it is overwhelmingly male, as you would expect, but even more than can be explained by the existing proportion.
So, I think there’s a few factors as to why we don’t see as much coverage of women. They’re an invisible part of a system in which most people are invisible to begin with in a lot of ways.
CAMMELL: Right. No, that’s really interesting. You’re saying that you think women are more hesitant to reach out. Why would that be, in your opinion?
BLAKINGER: I’m not sure. I mean, when I was inside, we always used to sort of say, “Oh.” Something bad would happen, and we wouldn’t organize to like do something about it, and we’d always be like, “Oh, if this was the men’s prison, they’d all organize, and women just can’t band together.” I don’t think that’s really quite true, but I do think it gets at something about the differences between men’s and women’s prisons. And I actually think we always blamed ourselves, and we were like, “Well, we’re the ones that won’t band together or won’t reach out to the media or whatever.” But I wonder if it’s also about risk and women being less willing to take certain risks because they have kids at home. There’s certain crimes and certain behaviors that women are less likely to engage in regardless. I mean, they commit fewer violent crimes. I think there’s certain ways in which women are probably more risk averse about certain things than men, and when they’re incarcerated and they’re trying to get home to their kids, I think it also creates a different set of pressures. I think it’d be really interesting to see some data on this, and I don’t know if this has ever been looked at, but I don’t know. So that’s just me spitballing—I don’t really have a clear answer on that.
CAMMELL: That makes a lot of sense. Something I also want to ask you about was speaking about women who are pregnant or are mothers, having to navigate the healthcare system in prison. Are there any particular challenges that women face trying to receive healthcare in prison or some that you experienced?
BLAKINGER: I think that women and men face a lot of the same challenges in terms of healthcare. Obviously, there’s that, but typically, prisons and correctional systems are in a lot of ways tailored toward men because they’re the majority. They’re usually the people that run the place—they’re often the majority, the people that are in charge of funding the place, and most of the people that are incarcerated, they are men. So by default, it’s a system created for men. And that can also have effects in terms of what women’s healthcare needs are available. When I was in jail, you couldn’t get prescribed birth control, which I mean, sure, you’re in jail. That sounds right. Why would you need it?
But at the same time, if you’re only in for like two months, it’s not great for your body to like be going on and off of that. And, in my case, like, I—well, whatever, this is, I don’t know, maybe grossly weirdly personal—but I ended up having my period for like nine straight months. And that is terrible. You do not want to bleed every day for nine months, obviously. That’s terrible, right? But the jail wouldn’t give me birth control, the one thing that could have regulated it. And I think this was just my body adjusting to coming off all the drugs. I mean, I don’t know what happened, maybe just living around all these—it’s women. It’s not a problem I’d had before. It’s not a problem I’ve had since it was a problem I had in jail and I couldn’t get prescribed birth control because they don’t prescribe it in jail. ’Cause they were like, “You’re not having sex in jail.” And I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t think this is healthy either, right?”
And so, I think that’s just an example—men would not view that as necessary thing. I think most women would agree that’s necessary at that point, right? So, I mean—sorry if I’ve grossed any listeners out—it’s a very, pretty clear example of ways in which prisons, jails can fail women in terms of healthcare. And, I think that for women who are pregnant, that can obviously be similarly challenging in more problematic ways. When I was in small county jail, they would occasionally have women who were pregnant, but there’s no maternal healthcare there, obviously—they have to shackle you and belly chain and take you to an outside provider for any sort of gynecological care. Some prison systems have nurseries. Some even have places where you can keep your kid for eighteen months or something, or one has a two-year max after you give birth, but those programs are usually really hard to get into. So it’s just a random whim of the system, whether you are able to keep your baby for a few months after giving birth. I understand, obviously, that there is that that’s and expensive undertaking, you know, dealing with incarcerated women keeping their children behind bars.
I feel like this sort of speaks to the extent to which the system is geared toward men. And I’m not saying this in some way to disparage men or say they’re at fault for creating a system that doesn’t account for women. I mean, that’s a separate conversation as to why the system exists the way it does and who’s at fault, but the reality of it is that it doesn’t account for women in many basic and important ways, simply down to healthcare.
CAMMELL: Right. And thinking about, too, trying to receive healthcare during the pandemic, have you done any recording or any of your colleagues about any additional challenges that are being presented during the pandemic regarding healthcare?
BLAKINGER: I think that we’re going to see those things play out over time. I am hearing terrible reports from women’s prisons and for men’s prisons. I haven’t so far heard anything that was particularly gender-specific. There have been some reports of—I know I remember reading that one of the prisons in Fort Worth, one of the federal prisons, there’s a woman there who had to have an emergency C-section because she had COVID. She wasn’t identified in that report. I haven’t tracked her down. I don’t know any details about that. I haven’t heard of an outbreak in a nursery or something, but frankly, it’s a matter of time.
I know that in New York, Bedford Hills, the prison where they have the nursery and all the pregnant women who are past a certain—I think it’s after five months in you would go to Bedford Hills, maybe six months, I don’t know. All of the women who are very pregnant are the ones who have kids there are all at Bedford, and they’re on lockdown. Officials told me they were not on lockdown, but they are, in point of fact, all actually confined to their housing units, which by any conventional metric would be called a lockdown. So clearly, and this is one of the prisons that has had a number of cases—I don’t remember how many off the top of my head—but New York has been fortunately posting that data online.
So it’s been a hotspot for coronavirus and has multiple pregnant women and women with children. And obviously that’s not a great combination, but I haven’t heard those specific horror stories out of there yet. I think there’s a long way to go on all of this.
CAMMELL: Totally. And I wanted to pivot a little bit, too, and ask you about this really beautiful personal essay that you just wrote for The Marshall Project. It’s about how, if you’re sheltering in place—after having been incarcerated in many ways—it’s like bringing you back, to kind of the lack of control that you felt when you were formerly incarcerated. I’m wondering if you could just share with listeners what sheltering in place has been like for you and just how it’s shifted or changed at all since you wrote the essay, if it has?
BLAKINGER: So, that was actually a very cathartic essay to write. My first few weeks of sheltering in place were terrible—and I mean, obviously, it’s not fun for anyone, but this was more than just like not gone, or I’m worried and sad, like I just completely panicked, and it wasn’t because of the pandemic per se. It wasn’t because of the economic uncertainty that goes with all this, which are also legitimate reasons to panic, obviously. But it was just the idea of a forced lockdown situation that freaked me out so much. It brought back all these issues—all this trauma, basically—that comes up in the course of incarceration.
I’d done some time in solitary confinement, not a long time at any point, but a few days here and there, and I did not handle it well. I basically just panicked when I first walked into a cell in solitary, which would have been in like 2011. I remember going in, and I was just blown away by how neon white the walls were, and the window—there’s a horizontal window slit above your bunk—but you can’t actually see out of it if you’re standing on the floor, and if you stand up on your bunk to look out, you get yelled at, ’cause you’re not allowed to stand on your bunk. There’s no clock, and there’s nothing. I didn’t have any books. I had a Bible, and I’m not religious, but that’s the only book I was allowed to have. You don’t have like crosswords. You have like three sheets of paper and a cup and a toothbrush. There’s no radio, there’s no TV. You can hear the muffled screams from the people next to you, but you can’t really hear what they’re saying. And I was on the second floor, so I couldn’t really see anyone outside, like I couldn’t wave the guards or anything like that.
I think a lot of people say to me that solitary—they like being alone. They’re sure they wouldn’t mind solitary confinement, but solitary confinement is not being alone—it’s more like being buried alive. You lose sense of time. You sometimes question if you still exist, and you don’t know when you’re getting out or when this ends. And for me, it was extremely disorienting, and I felt like I very much disassociated when I was in it. I didn’t think anything else would ever bring me back to that place mentally for the first few weeks of this, like I felt like I was going crazy. Like I was losing track of time. I would wake up in the morning, not sure if I was alive. I was really embarrassed by the way in which I felt like I was losing a grip on reality. And it’s gotten a little better since then. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people that I did time with, sort of talking through that. Some of them feel the same way, and that at least made me feel like my reaction was not, I don’t know, outside the norm for someone who’s been through the set of experiences that some of us have been through.
But, it’s still hard. I mean, I have a few days where I can function somewhat normally, and then, a few days where everything seems confusing and disorienting and I just try to, in those days, talk to people who’ve been where I’ve been and also to focus only on the story I’m writing and not think of anything outside of it and have very narrow focus on just what’s on my screen. I mean, it’s admittedly all depressing these days, but there’s a very clear beginning and ending and a very clear path in front of me to what I need to do, and I can try to block out the things around me. I’m sure these tactics and techniques are things that other people might do who are struggling with this, and they’ve never had these experiences, but that’s how I’ve been coping—that, and running a lot. I am running so much I’m going to end up with knee injuries as a result of this. My knees and my liver both hate me right now.
CAMMELL: I feel you there. Well, such a beautiful essay, and I’m really glad you shared it because I think for people even without experience of being incarcerated, like you were saying, I mean, it’s so traumatic. And especially what you were describing from solitary—just like the white walls and no clock and just this feeling that you are not in any way connected to normalcy at all, I think is so jarring. I can’t even imagine.
What you were mentioning, too, about ways that you’re coping, like staying connected to people and focusing on work and stuff like that, it’s so relatable. Do you have any advice for other people who are feeling re-traumatized after having had a similar experience—incarceration—and then are like coming out and trying to cope with this as well?
BLAKINGER: I feel like the ways that we deal with, the different traumas of this are just so different. It’s hard for me to have any advice. I think that to some extent though, it’s like for incarcerated people, I think we are our own best allies on this. These are the people who know how to say the things to get you out of that headspace. Because you’ve all tried to live through those same experiences. These are the people who know how to talk to someone who’s in the next cell and losing it in isolation. I think that to some degree, we’re uniquely well-equipped to help each other. Obviously, I have a limited number of formerly incarcerated people in my life, so I’m also fortunate to have some other really good friends who haven’t had those experiences and have no understanding of it, but have been just amazingly supportive. So, I think, I don’t have concrete advice, but I will say that it’s really helpful to have a network of positive people, including those who’ve been formerly incarcerated.
CAMMELL: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for sharing your time with us. I really appreciate it, especially because it’s already such a chaotic moment. So, thank you for sharing.