Keri Blakinger is many things: a former elite figure skater, an Ivy League graduate, a prolific criminal-justice journalist, a convicted felon. The Texas-based writer recently published Corrections in Ink (St. Martin’s Press), a memoir that strings these seemingly disparate lives—from her near-Olympic rise to her drug addiction to her two-year prison stint to her Cornell graduation—into one very compelling narrative about redemption, second chances, and what you’re probably getting wrong about the legal system.
In October, Reason‘s Billy Binion interviewed Blakinger by phone about her book.
Q: There’s a one-size-fits-all picture that much of society has when they think about prisoners. You and I have known each other for a while, but I think your memoir challenges that way of thinking. What do you think people misunderstand about who’s behind bars?
A: I have two thoughts on this, and they seem like they’re in conflict. But I think they’re both true. People in prison have a lot more to give, they have a lot more talent, and there’s frankly a lot of people who are far smarter than you might assume. At the same time, I’ve done interviews with people who I think are so intellectually disabled or mentally ill that people would be shocked that this is someone for whom prison is the best solution we seem to be able to offer.
Q: With the popularity of genres like true crime, I think there’s a very specific idea of what happens in prison. But one of the most interesting parts of your book was your description of the passage of time and how much of prison is just counting down the moments.
A: The most valuable thing taken away while in prison is time. These years of your life have essentially been excised. That’s clearly intended as part of the punishment—I’m not saying that as “poor me.” But this is why prisoners obsess about time so much, and why it comes up in my book so much, because at the heart of what the punishment does is shave years off your life.
Q: You describe the casual cruelty behind bars—guards enforcing arbitrary rules with harsh punishments, chopping off your hair for the fun of it, and so on. I’m interested to hear you respond to someone who says, “Prison isn’t a resort, so that’s what you should expect.”
A: Going to prison is supposed to be the punishment, not mistreatment while you’re there. The Eighth Amendment still exists, much as many people on Twitter seem to forget it. But aside from whatever we want to say about prison needing to be a harsh deterrent, that hasn’t been effective. If that were effective, Mississippi would have no recidivism. Alabama would have no recidivism. If you abuse someone, dehumanize them, and undermine their dignity, it shouldn’t be surprising that they don’t come out better. If we want to actually improve public safety, then we’d want to treat people in a way that they are better community members when they get out, because more than 90 percent will get out.
Q: One of the things that really stuck with me was a quote from a group of prisoners who said they didn’t understand why anyone would want to hear their stories. Why do you think it’s important that people do that?
A: It’s easy to justify bad treatment of people who you view as faceless nonentities. You see this on social media, because a lot of people are unable to view the person on the other end of the screen as a real human with feelings. Similarly, it’s really easy to view prisoners as undeserving of basic human rights. And I hope that every time we tell our stories, and every time we tell other people’s stories, it’s a clear reminder that these are real people. I think so much of the value is reminding people that we’re human.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.