Star athlete, addict, prisoner, journalist: A memoirist on her story and her mission

A woman with straight hair in tank top with many tattoos in front of a brick wall.
Keri Blakinger’s harrowing journey through incarceration is the heart of her memoir, “Corrections in Ink,” but it’s the indictment of the justice system that stings.
(Ilana Panich-Linsman)
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Corrections in Ink: A Memoir

By Keri Blakinger
St. Martin’s: 336 pages, $19

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What Keri Blakinger learned in prison changed her life.

Blakinger had been a competitive figure skater as a teen, but battled mental health issues and eating disorders before a frightening descent into drug use, homelessness, suicide attempts, sex work and destructive relationships. But her memoir, “Corrections in Ink,” out in paperback this week, is not your standard “scared straight” fare: She stopped using heroin on her own while locked up, passing up easy opportunities to score drugs behind bars.

No, the first thing Blakinger learned was the lasting harm America’s criminal justice system does to those it incarcerates. In her scorchingly candid memoir, Blakinger writes, “All the futility, the small cruelties, the refusal to see us as fully human — it was not a flaw in the system. It was the system.”


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The second thing Blakinger realized was that as bad as she had it, she was extremely fortunate. She was from an educated, middle-class background, with almost endlessly supportive parents (despite her addictions, she was close to a degree from Cornell University when she got busted in 2010). And she was white. She saw that everything in that system — from arrest to (mis)treatment in jail and prison to release — was worse for poor people, particularly people of color.

Keri Blakinger with Mark Ladwig during their years of competitive figure skating.
(Paul Harvath)

“There’s a dearth of books about women’s prison experiences, and a lot of what people get is from TV and has varying levels of accuracy,” Blakinger said in a recent phone interview from a car while returning from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, where she is now a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

“This is a book about reentry,” she continued. “My experience shows there’s a possibility for very successful outcomes, but I also hope people see how incredibly lucky I was … and can extrapolate from there why so many people don’t have the same sort of outcomes.”

So while “Corrections” is a deeply personal book, Blakinger also weaves in statistics and other big-picture information. She writes about how prisons were built in rural white areas to boost those economies, which further isolated Black and brown inmates, placing them far from home in the company of local white (and sometimes racist) corrections officers. “They get written up more often,” she writes, “then they’ll go to solitary more often, and it’ll be harder to get out because they won’t be able to make parole.”

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Blakinger shares moving and horrific stories about those with whom she served time, including one woman whose cell was trashed for hours on end by a guard who claimed he was investigating a tip about a rule she had broken; he destroyed her possessions, read her letters and left her sobbing until he finally declared, “April Fools” and sauntered out. (It was March.)

“It’s important to tell my story in a way that doesn’t seem self-pitying, and one way to do that is to tell other people’s stories, which helps readers understand that this is a broader story,” Blakinger said.

A woman with a camera in a prison, talking to an inmate through glass.
Blakinger interviewing David Ford, who received dentures as the result of her prison reporting, for a follow-up podcast in 2022 at Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas.
(Daniel Litke)

After she was released, Blakinger began telling those stories professionally. As a journalist she committed herself to making a difference for those whose voices were diminished or shut down by the system. A 2015 story she reported on for the New York Daily News helped lead to the arrest and conviction of a Rikers Island corrections officer for raping a female inmate. Her criminal justice reporting for the Houston Chronicle helped restore basic human dignity to inmates — for instance, the state finally provided dentures to toothless inmates after her stories on the topic. She won a National Magazine Award for a Washington Post Magazine story on California prison reforms and then joined the Marshall Project. (She came to The Times in January to cover the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.)

Despite her success, Blakinger said it took her a long time to shake off the trauma of incarceration: “Even though I didn’t do a long time, it really stays with you. You only come back from prison bit by bit. Even now there are days where I’m surprised when people in positions of power treat me like a real person and not a number.”

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While she had addressed her saga in essays, writing a memoir was a very different experience. “It’s a very weird research project,” she said. “You spend time just screwing around on Facebook, going down rabbit holes thinking, ‘I forgot about that person’ and then you remember something you did with them. Sitting and staring at the walls and remembering — and calling that research — can feel supremely unproductive.”

Her earlier work had prepared her for the research and writing, but promoting the book took a new toll. “I was not prepared for how difficult it was discussing these things at length, day after day for weeks, getting asked some of the same questions,” she said. “It’s really weird listening to people read aloud some of the darkest parts of my own life back at me. I’ve learned there are only so many questions in a row about sex work that I can answer. It would sometimes throw me off emotionally.”

'Corrections in Ink,' by Keri Blakinger
(St. Martin’s Press)

She did have one encounter that particularly pleased her, however. Blakinger went back to Ithaca, N.Y., the literal scene of her crime, for a book event; there, someone accidentally rear-ended her rental car. The other driver wanted to call the police. “I thought, of all the places to call the police, why in Ithaca,” Blakinger said. She was relieved when she didn’t immediately recognize the officer who arrived. “I gave her my ID, and she looked up and said, ‘Congratulations on your book.’ That was amazing. It was such a wild full-circle moment for me.”

But what Blakinger cherishes most are the responses from readers in prison. “I get letters about how I’ve inspired them or now they’ve started writing themselves,” she said. “It makes me so happy.”

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Those readers were not, initially at least, from Florida, which banned the book in its prison system. “I was not surprised because Florida has the largest banned book list in the country in terms of prisons,” Blakinger said. But she also wasn’t particularly surprised when an official reversed the decision after some bad publicity. “At some point it went high enough up the ladder for somebody would realize it was not a good look and they didn’t want to deal with a possible lawsuit.”

Still, the issue remains unresolved. Blakinger had set aside copies for Florida’s inmates, and officials have still not answered her queries about where to send them. And many prison systems don’t allow any hardcover books, so Blakinger is curious whether the paperback version prompts a new round of bans. “I’ll be interested to see what California prisons do,” she said, ever the reporter.

VIDEO | 07:02
LA Times Today: In ‘Corrections in Ink,’ Blakinger shares an inside perspective on the criminal justice system

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