Blakinger, who grew up in Lancaster, Pa., was a competitive figure skater, but when her skating partner left her when she was 17, things began to unravel.
"I couldn't imagine a world other than skating," she says. "And I fell apart and I started using drugs."
Blakinger continued using drugs in college and once tried to kill herself by jumping off a bridge. In 2010, during her senior year at Cornell University, she was arrested with 6 ounces of heroin and sentenced to prison.
While incarcerated, Blakinger came to realize just how many inmates struggle with addiction and mental illness. After her release, she returned to Cornell and eventually began a career as a criminal justice reporter.
Blakinger's reporting has led to several prison reforms, including a recent move to use 3D printers to provide dentures to prisoners in Texas.
When she saw the prisoner whom she had written about with his new teeth last week, Blakinger felt especially gratified: "It was a really cool moment for me. I've been in prison, I've struggled to get adequate medical care, I've struggled to get adequate dental care, and to go back and to so tangibly see the impact of a story in a way that's impacted people in a position that I was in eight years ago was just fabulous."
On attempting suicide in college by jumping off a bridge
I remember very clearly the tree branches and the leaves and time froze, and then suddenly I hit the bottom and I was pissed off. I expected to be dead and I was not dead and I was not happy about that. ... I don't remember it hurting that much. I remember just being so incredibly surprised that I was still alive and angry that I was still alive, but I imagine there was a lot of adrenaline at that point. ...
I actually fractured my back, but I was still able to get up and walk to the edge of the gorge. And by that time, there was a policeman at the top of the bridge, and I may have turned around and given him the finger. And then seven or eight years later, I actually ran into him again, once I had become a reporter and I was covering the heroin epidemic, and I called the Ithaca police for comment on something and he was at that point the spokesman and he was like, "Oh, my God! Keri, do you remember me? I was there when you jumped off the bridge."
On being arrested during her senior year at Cornell
I was walking down the street with a clear Tupperware container full of heroin, because apparently I didn't even think I needed a backpack. I don't know, I was very high. The police came up to me, and I tossed the drugs under a nearby car, and I thought I was in the clear. I thought I was not going to get arrested at that point, and somebody saw me do that and ... fished the Tupperware out from under the car and went over and gave it to the cops. ...
I got arrested, and as I was getting arrested, they were like, "Empty out your pockets." And I emptied out my pockets and there was coke in one pocket, which I gave them, and then there was a bunch of pills in the other, which I ate, and the next two days were pretty foggy. I did a lot of drugs as I was being arrested and woke up from it all in jail, facing some pretty serious charges.
On seeing mental illness while she was incarcerated
At one point, I was in a bunk next to someone who had punched another girl in the bathroom for invading her dreams. She was in prison, in general population; she wasn't even in a mental health unit. And there was another example that stood out to me was in the horticulture vocational class that I took when we were making Christmas wreaths, the instructor at one point stopped and looked at this one girl and was like, "Do not put the hot glue gun in your mouth." At first I sort of laughed, but then I was like, "Oh, I think he's saying that based on actual past experience."
That's a really stark example of who we're willing to put in prison, because going into [prison] I had no idea that people like that would end up in prison — but they do, and a lot of them do, and the line for meds every morning is incredibly long.
On her experience in solitary confinement
I was just alone in this barren, neon white room with no clock, no sense of how long I would be there, almost no possessions, and I very quickly lost track of time. I felt like I was going in and out of being awake. It felt like being buried alive, and I didn't think it would be that bad at all. I mean, I think I handled it worse than some people do, but I think, in general, people will think, "I like spending time alone. Solitary confinement is probably not that bad." But no, it really was that bad. ...
I wasn't sure that I would be the same afterwards, and to be clear, I was only in there for a very short period of time, and some people do it for years and somehow come out in one piece. But for me, on the second day, I was plotting ways to kill myself. Could I stand on this sink and hit my head on the bed at the right angle? Could I bash my head into the wall? Could I slip a noose through this? ... I do still have nightmares about it from time to time. It's definitely something that has stuck with me.
On her investigation into toothless inmates in Texas
They weren't giving people dentures and instead would offer to blend up regular mess hall food and put it in cups and give it to you. This has been their practice for about 15 years. Prior to 2003, 2004, they had a vocational program where the inmates would learn to make dentures and thus provide dentures for other inmates. But then that got cut in 2004 for reasons that were not entirely clear, and after that, they drastically cut down the number of dentures that they were given out. ...
I started putting in requests to get data to try to quantify these things. I put in requests to look at 20 years of policies to see how that had changed over time. I found some relevant lawsuits, and I started writing inmates being like, "Hey, tell all of your friends who need dentures to please write me." And I did that over the course of almost a year, and one of the guys I ended up in touch with was David Ford, and he was at a prison that was close enough that I could visit, and he was from Harris County, so I decided to pay him a visit, and he was just an incredibly nice, incredibly positive guy. For someone who's got a decent amount of time left to do and didn't have any teeth, he was incredibly positive about life in general. ...
After [the article] came out, a few weeks later the prison system decided they were going to change their policies and make dentures more broadly available and that they were going to create a dentures clinic at one of the units and hire a dentist. That was great, and then I found out ... the way that they're going to do this in an affordable manner is by 3D printing dentures on-site. ... When I went to visit [David Ford next], he had teeth.
On how white privilege has allowed her to rebuild her life after prison
I wasn't quite as cognizant of it at the time, but after I got out and started seeing the numbers and realizing how this plays out more broadly, that minorities are more likely to be arrested, they're more likely to be getting sent to prison, and then once they're in there, in New York anyways, minorities are more likely to get put in solitary confinement. And then, of course, you get out and minorities are going to have a harder time getting a job with a felony. Every step of the process, being white, being educated, having the background I did, it's all helped to make it possible for me to have a second chance that not everyone has, or at least not everyone has as easily. ...
I was so lucky to come out of this, and I've been so privileged in so many ways to end up with hope and second chances and a happy ending. ... A lot of people don't have that, and I wish that more did.
Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Scott Hensley adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After serving 21 months in prison on narcotics charges, my guest, Keri Blakinger, now reports on prisons as part of her job as a criminal justice reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Her reporting has led to several prison reforms in Texas.
An op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post nearly four years ago was headlined "Heroin Addiction Sent Me To Prison, White Privilege Got Me Out And To The Ivy League." That story had two photos. One is her mug shot in which she looks dazed, her hair scraggly, scabs on her face. In the other photo after her release, she's wearing a cap and gown graduating from Cornell University. She was a senior at Cornell when she was arrested with six ounces of heroin in December 2010. That led to her being suspended from college and banned from campus. But after serving nearly two years in county and state correctional facilities, Cornell gave her a second chance. She attributes part of her successful transition out of prison to her dog Charlotte, who she wrote about in a recent article for the criminal justice website The Marshall Project.
Keri Blakinger, welcome to FRESH AIR. So before we talk about your reporting on criminal justice, let's talk about how you spent two years in prison. You had been a medal-winning figure skater in pairs, but your skating partner left you for a different partner in 2001 when you were 17, and that led to depression. Is that when you started using drugs?
KERI BLAKINGER: Yes, it was. I was in a really dark place. I was 17. And to me, this seemed like the end of the world, which, obviously, was incredibly inaccurate and overdramatic. But at 17, I just couldn't imagine a world other than skating. And I fell apart, and I started using drugs and continued to do so off and on for the next nine years until I got arrested.
GROSS: Your parents went to Ivy League schools, and you went to one, Cornell. And after one semester, I guess it was a combination of drugs and depression - you tell me - but you tried to kill yourself by jumping off a bridge. And it's remarkable. You fell 98 feet, and you survived. How did you survive that?
BLAKINGER: Well, the rock - I hit a mossy rock. There was about a quarter inch of water on it. And I slid. And when I hit and slid, I actually - I fractured my back, but I was still able to get up and walk to the edge of the gorge. And by that time, there was a policeman at the top of the bridge, and I may have turned around and given him the finger (laughter). And then seven or eight years later, I actually ran into him again once I'd become a reporter. And I was covering the heroin epidemic. And I called the Ithaca police for comment on something, and he was at that point the spokesman. And he was like, oh, my God, Keri, do you remember me? I was there when you jumped off the bridge (laughter).
GROSS: Wow. He saved your life.
BLAKINGER: (Laughter) I think he was really happy to see someone who'd, you know, gotten things back together and was doing well because so often police don't see that. If you get your things together and are doing well, you just never interact with them again, and that's that. But, you know, I should add when I tell that story, I often tell it, like, laughing as if it's something funny, and I realize it's not. Like a lot of the stories I have to tell, it's pretty dark. And, you know, partly I think that's about, you know, just self-preservation. Like, I can't sort of relive this trauma and darkness every time I tell it. But it's also about the people who are hearing my story or reading the stories I report because, you know, I feel like I need them to sort of stick with me through the dark parts to get to the end where there's some hope or understanding because, you know, I was so lucky to come out of this. And I've been so privileged in so many ways to end up with hope and second chances and a happy ending. And a lot of people don't have that, and I wish that more did.
GROSS: You know, most people don't survive jumps like yours. And so there's a question that is rarely asked or answered because of that. And if you don't mind, I'm going to ask you what went through your mind on the way down? And did it feel like a long trip or a short trip?
BLAKINGER: Time froze. I remember, like, the tree branches because this was a gorge. So I remember very clearly the tree branches and the leaves, and time froze, and then suddenly I hit the bottom, and I was pissed off. You know, I expected to be dead, and I was not dead, and I was not happy about that.
GROSS: So you actually remember the moment of impact.
BLAKINGER: Yeah, I do.
GROSS: Did it hurt a lot?
BLAKINGER: You know, I don't remember it hurting that much. Like, I remember just being so incredibly surprised that I was still alive and angry that I was still alive. But, you know, I imagine there was a lot of adrenaline at that point. So I don't really remember pain - not physical pain.
GROSS: So you must have been really angry with yourself afterwards. Were you angry because you survived or were you more angry that you'd hurt yourself, that you'd fractured your back and now you had to live with pain and a brace for I don't know how long?
BLAKINGER: Well, I felt like I kind of deserved that part. But, I mean, I was just - I was angry at myself that I had let my life get to that place. I was angry at myself that I couldn't even manage to kill myself right. And I know that's a really dark thing to say, but, I mean, I was in a really dark place.
GROSS: Would you describe your memory of being arrested?
BLAKINGER: (Laughter) Oh, that's a - that's very foggy. I mean, there were some events leading up to it, but, you know, what it came down to is that someone had called the police, and I was walking down the street with a Tupperware - a clear Tupperware container full of heroin because apparently I didn't even think I needed a backpack. I don't know. I was very high. And the police came up to me, and I tossed the drugs under a nearby car, and I thought I was, like, in the clear. I thought I was not going to get arrested at that point. And somebody saw me do that and came up and got - fished the Tupperware out from under the car and went over and gave it to the cops and was like, were you looking for this? And I'm like, no, they weren't looking for that. They didn't know it was there (laughter). But you know - but I got arrested. And as I was getting arrested, I - they were like, empty out your pockets. And, you know, I emptied out my pockets. And there was some coke in one pocket, which I gave them. And then there was a bunch of pills in the other, which I ate. And the next two days were pretty foggy. I did a lot of drugs as I was being arrested and, you know, sort of woke up from it all in jail facing some pretty serious charges.
GROSS: Were you selling at the time?
BLAKINGER: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I was selling to support my habit, which was, at that point, a pretty big habit.
GROSS: And did selling endanger your life even more?
BLAKINGER: Yeah. I mean, selling drugs is always dangerous. And, you know, it's also something that looking back just adds another level of sort of shame and regret to it when you try to get things back together because then it's not just that you were doing whatever bad things you were doing in your own life for your addiction. But, you know, you were helping further other people's addictions as well.
GROSS: You just implied that maybe it was a lucky thing you were arrested because it got you sober, but you also have written that you stayed sober not because of prison but because you stayed sober.
BLAKINGER: Right. And that's very true because you can get heroin delivered to your bedside in prison. I think - and, you know - and the other piece of this is that I think that at that point I was at a point where I was ready to get sober. Whether it was because of an arrest or - I mean, I think there's a possibility that if I just sort of moved away or graduated or moved on to the next phase of my life, I was in a point where I was very ready to be done with it. And I think if I'd gotten arrested a year earlier, I would have kept using drugs in jail. I don't think I was at a point to be ready then.
GROSS: You write that prison is mostly boredom - washing floors, scrubbing toilets - with outbursts of the bizarre and crazy. Were you allowed to have books in prison? And was your reading regulated, or could you read whatever you wanted to?
BLAKINGER: We were allowed to have books. There's rules. Every prison, every jail has rules. Sometimes it's just about, like, the physical book. Can it be hardback or softcover? And some systems are much more restrictive in terms of what content you're allowed to have in or not. But I read all the time voraciously, you know, sometimes one, two books a day. And, you know, it was one of few things that felt normal 'cause it was an activity that I did on the outside that was essentially the same on the inside. I felt like just a normal human, not a number, not an inmate, just a person, you know, enjoying a story. And that's such a rare thing to feel in a place like prison.
GROSS: Did you read books you never would have thought of reading before because you're in prison and you didn't have the biggest choice in the world?
BLAKINGER: (Laughter) Yeah, I did. I - yeah, I read - well, for one, I didn't really envision myself reading the Bible cover to cover.
BLAKINGER: But, yeah, you know, I mean, I read some really bizarre and awful books, including one about a cannibal. I don't know why someone wrote weird, cannibal fiction. But I would read basically anything that you put in front of me. And, you know, I remember - I mean, one of the memories of jail that really stuck out to me was at one point, maybe four or five weeks into it, I was reading something. And it was the first time that I forgot that I was in jail. I got so into the book that, like, I looked up. And I was just like, wait. Where am I? What's going on? And I mean, that's, obviously, an incredibly disappointing realization to realize where you are. But that sort of just complete escape and ability to just feel like a normal person again for even a few minutes is priceless.
GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Keri Blakinger. After serving nearly two years on narcotics charges, she became a journalist. She's now a reporter at the Houston Chronicle covering criminal justice, specializing in prisons and the death penalty. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Keri Blakinger. After serving two years in prison on narcotics charges, she went back to Cornell University, graduated, then became a reporter. She now covers criminal justice for the Houston Chronicle. Her reporting has led to several prison reforms.
Prisons have, in part, become warehouses for people who are mentally ill. Did you see a lot of examples of that when you were incarcerated?
BLAKINGER: Yes, I did. I - you know, at one point, I was in a bunk next to someone who had punched another girl in the bathroom for invading her dreams. And, you know - and she was in prison in general population. She wasn't even in, like, a mental health unit. And, you know, there was - another example that stood out to me was in the horticulture vocational class that I took. When we were making Christmas wreaths, the instructor, at one point, stopped and was like - you know, looked at this one girl and was like, do not put the hot glue gun in your mouth. And at first, I sort of laughed. And then I was like, oh, I think he's saying that based on actual past experience. And, you know, that's - I mean, that's a really stark example of who it is that we're willing to put in prison because I, going into it, had no idea that people like that would end up in prison. But, you know, they do, and a lot of them do. And the line for meds every morning is incredibly long.
GROSS: So do you think the fact that they were mentally ill people - like, seriously mentally ill people in the general population in prison made prison life more dangerous for those who were mentally ill and also for people like you?
BLAKINGER: You know, I, actually - I don't really feel like that - I was at no point worried that that was going to be the thing that would endanger me as an inmate. That was never - I mean, other inmates were never the thing that I was most scared of in prison.
GROSS: What were you most scared of?
BLAKINGER: Solitary confinement.
GROSS: You were in solitary twice.
BLAKINGER: Yes. And I was in solitary twice in jail. But I realized that there's - you know, you think of prison as a place where there's a ton of rules. But in some sense, there's, basically, no rules because the officers can put you in solitary for almost nothing and still be working within the rules or they can just make something up, which, you know, happens sometimes. I mean, there's plenty of, you know, perfectly good officers. I'm not saying otherwise. But, you know, to an extent, it's like their own little kingdom. And I knew that any day I could just be walking to the mess hall and someone could be having a bad day and decide to be like, you know what? You're out of place or I see you with, you know, X, Y or Z contraband - and put you in solitary. And that's just an incredibly terrifying experience.
GROSS: Why were you put in solitary twice?
BLAKINGER: So the first time was just a routine medical isolation when I got moved from one jail to another because the one was overcrowded. And then the second time was - the officer said that they found drugs in my cell. And I don't think that they did. Someone else said that they were hers, but they decided to put four of us in isolation anyway and ship us off to another jail. And at that point, you know, I had no idea how long I'd be in solitary or not because I didn't have any sort of disciplinary papers. I didn't know if I was going to be facing, like, additional criminal charges. You know, and I wasn't getting any answers because I'd been shipped off to another jail, so the people who could answer those questions were not there.
And I mean, I was just alone in this barren, neon white room with no clock, no sense of how long I would be there, almost no possessions. And I very quickly just sort of lost track of time. I was - I felt like I was sort of going in and out of being awake. It didn't - you know, it really just - it felt like being buried alive. And I didn't think it would be that bad at all. And I mean, I think I handled it worse than some people do. But I think in general, you know, people will think, oh. I like spending time alone. Solitary confinement's probably not that bad. But no, it really was that bad.
GROSS: Were you afraid of losing your sanity in solitary?
BLAKINGER: Yes. I wasn't sure that I would be the same afterwards. And to be clear, I was only in there a very short period of time. And, you know, some people do it for years and somehow come out in one piece. But I mean, for me, on the second day, I was plotting ways to kill myself. You know, could I stand on this sink and, you know, hit my head on the bed at the right angle? Could I bash my head into the wall? Could I, you know, slip a noose through this, you know? And I mean, I do think it stuck with me. I mean, I don't think I've, in the long run, lost my sanity - whatever of it I have. But, you know, I mean, I do still have nightmares about it from time to time. It's definitely something that has stuck with me.
GROSS: You had mentioned that you didn't expect to ever read the Bible cover to cover. From reading your work, it sounds like the Bible was the only book available in solitary. Is that when you read it cover to cover?
BLAKINGER: Yeah, the - the Bible was the only book that you were guaranteed to be able to take from one facility to the next. Sometimes, if you were transferred, you might be able to bring a second book. It just sort of depended on what officers were working that day. But the Bible was the one that you knew you could bring along. And it was also the one that you knew you could bring along from jail to prison.
And if you wanted to bring along contact numbers or, you know, your loved ones addresses, you couldn't just write them down on a piece of paper and bring them. So, you know, you had to pick a page in the Bible and write them in between the words, like, in places where someone searching it wouldn't necessarily notice. And I actually - I still have that Bible with all the addresses secretly written in it somewhere.
GROSS: Why would that be considered the equivalent of contraband, these addresses?
BLAKINGER: I mean, there's - there's a lot of questions (laughter) that I don't have a good answer to about why - why prisons would do things one way. I mean, when you're going into state prison, like, typically you're just not allowed to come in with anything other than what they cannot prevent you legally from having. And it's my understanding that, you know, they have to let you bring a Bible - or at least in New York, that's what we were always told. That's why the reasoning was.
GROSS: You got a relatively lenient sentence. You served less than two years in prison.
GROSS: You attribute that, in part, to your white privilege. Can you explain?
BLAKINGER: Yeah, I mean, I think I wasn't quite as cognizant of it at the time. But after I got out and started seeing the numbers and realizing how this plays out more broadly - that, you know, minorities are more likely to be getting arrested. They're more likely to being - to be getting sent to prison. And then once they're in there, in New York anyways, minorities are more likely to get put in solitary confinement. And then, of course, you get out. And, you know, minorities are going to have a harder time getting a job with a felony.
I mean, it's like every step of the process, you know, being white, being educated, having - you know, having the sort of background I did, it's all helped to make it possible for me to have a second chance that not everyone has - or at least not everyone has as easily.
GROSS: You think you also got a relatively lenient sentence because you were sentenced in a liberal county...
BLAKINGER: Totally, yeah.
GROSS: And because the Rockefeller drug laws had been rolled back the year before.
GROSS: So had those drug laws not been rolled back, how much time would you have been doing? Like, what were the laws that were rolled back?
BLAKINGER: So they were rolled back progressively. But had I been sentenced under an earlier version of them, I would have been doing 15 to life. So I would still be in prison.
GROSS: So all the productive work you're doing now, you would not have been able to do. You would have not been able to become a criminal justice reporter if you were still behind bars. I mean, it's just interesting. Like, you're leading, like, by anybody's standard, a really productive life right now - a really...
BLAKINGER: Thank you.
GROSS: ...Doing valuable work.
BLAKINGER: Thank you.
GROSS: My guest is Keri Blakinger, a criminal justice reporter at the Houston Chronicle. She served 21 months in prison on narcotics charges before becoming a journalist. We'll talk about how her dog helped her transition out of prison after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Keri Blakinger, a criminal justice reporter for the Houston Chronicle who reports on prisons. Her work is responsible for several prison reforms. But before reporting on prisons, she served time in them, nearly 21 months, including time in solitary. She was arrested in 2010, during her senior year at Cornell University. She was carrying 6 ounces of heroin. She got sober in prison.
Keri, I want to talk about your late dog, Charlotte. You got her a few days after you jumped off a bridge and survived the jump. You were told by your partner that if you got a dog, it would keep you grounded because you'd have to take care of the dog. The dog would be relying on you.
So you got this dog. And then when you were arrested, you were arrested on the street. Your dog was at home. You lived alone. And you had no idea what happened to your dog. It's not something we think about much, what happens to the pets when their owner who lives alone is arrested, and they're arrested on the street or in another place other than their home. So what happened to your dog after you were arrested?
BLAKINGER: I didn't know. For a couple of weeks, at least, I didn't find out. I was in jail and had no way of figuring out what had happened to her. And maybe a day or two after I got arrested, I found out later some people had broken into my house and taken about everything - which is, I guess, not uncommon. If there's an arrest and people know that you're in jail, sometimes they just come and take your stuff. And they took just about everything, even my dirty underwear. But afterwards, my dog was not there, and I didn't know what had happened to her. I had a friend that was checking and found that, you know, the place was ransacked, and she was gone. And then eventually I heard from my parents that the property manager had gone and contacted this family in Cayuga Heights, which is this, you know, nice little suburb right outside of Ithaca, and they already had a dog, and this woman had thought, hey, this family might take another dog for a few weeks. And so they came over and picked up Charlotte and brought her home, and she spent the holidays there.
And afterwards, my parents came up to visit me for the first time, and they went and, you know, checked on Charlotte. And the family decided that they had just fallen in love with Charlotte and were totally willing to keep her, even though it still wasn't clear how long that would be. And, you know, they said they'd give her back afterwards. And, you know, for the next 21 months, they did that. They took care of her. She became friends with their dog, Bailey. And you know, she had this whole happy dog life without me - you know, going to dog parks and, you know, learning to do all these dog - she never played, like, you know, with balls and things before. And she learned to do all that.
GROSS: She was in crack houses with you before.
BLAKINGER: Right, exactly. She was trying to steal people's weed. That's what she was doing before.
GROSS: Did you train her to do that?
BLAKINGER: No (laughter). I don't know why she always had such an interest in weed, but she really was totally into it (laughter). She just - I guess she just liked the smell. I don't know. But she learned to do, like, normal dog things. And then when I got out, they said that they'd give her back, but I think I kind of didn't really believe it until it actually happened. And I got out of prison and then went to see Charlotte, and I walked in the door and she had no idea who I was, which, you know, should have been foreseeable. But I was devastated, you know, because this dog had gotten me through some really rough times. Like, she'd been there for a police raid. She'd been there, you know, after I jumped off the bridge. You know, she'd been there through the worst of my addiction. And I mean, she's a dog. She didn't judge me for it. It didn't impact how she looked at me. And you know, now she didn't know who I was.
And so I sort of re-established that relationship, started taking her for walks and stuff. And she didn't really seem to be catching on. And then one day, I took her on a walk by the place that I'd been living where I got arrested, and I could just see the moment that she realized who I was and started walking closer to me and didn't need the leash anymore. And that was, like, the first thing I got back after prison.
GROSS: How did your dog, Charlotte, help you adapt back to the outside world after nearly two years in prison?
BLAKINGER: It was because of Charlotte that I met this wonderful family, Floriana (ph) and David Bland (ph). They were the people that took care of her the whole time that I was gone. And because we met through my dog, you know, they reached out and took care of me. And, you know, Floriana would introduce me to her friends, and she would just sometimes bring over random groceries. And, you know, at one point, she even had me housesitting for her, which was just huge. Here I was, this felon who clearly has a long history of screwing up everything, and she's trusting me watching her house and her dog and my dog and their cat. And they were some of the first people that I hadn't known, that didn't have this background with me pre-prison, that were willing to take a chance on a felon and let me into their lives. And it was all because of this just, you know, chance relationship, because of the dogs.
GROSS: So you had gone to Cornell University, and you hadn't yet graduated when you were imprisoned. You graduated after prison. But you were, you know, you were an Ivy League student. You were an avid reader. You did crossword puzzles all the time in prison. Were you seen as odd for reading as much as you did, or did you find that a lot of prisoners were deep into books because it's one of the few sources of distraction?
BLAKINGER: Well, I mean, there's a lot of people that are reading a lot in prison. But I think that I must have seemed a little nerdier than the average inmate 'cause my prison name was Harry Potter.
GROSS: I'll accept that as evidence that you seemed nerdier.
GROSS: Did you have Harry Potter glasses?
BLAKINGER: Kind of. And, you know, we wore collared shirts in New York prisons, and I have short hair. So I don't know. People just thought that the resemblance was uncanny. And I got that at, like, every unit. And, I mean, a lot of people have prison names. Like, there was a Tinkerbelle, and there was a Pork Chop, and there was a China and an Africa. There was a lot of people that had prison names, but there was only one Harry Potter.
GROSS: I want to talk with you about your work as a crime reporter. But first, we need to take a short break. Let me reintroduce you. My guest is Keri Blakinger. After serving two years on narcotics charges, she became a journalist. She is now a reporter at the Houston Chronicle covering criminal justice, specializing in prisons and the death penalty. We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Keri Blakinger. After serving two years in prison on narcotics charges, she went back to Cornell University, graduated, then became a reporter. She now covers criminal justice for the Houston Chronicle. Her reporting has led to several prison reforms.
So one of the areas you're covering now is Texas prisons. And you've written that the story that shook you up the most was when you got a suicide note from an inmate a week after he took his life. It took the note that long to get to you. It was a note he'd written over the course of four months. What was it about that note or this story that so shook you up?
BLAKINGER: So this man, Eldon Jackson, he killed himself in the Harris County Jail in solitary confinement. And when I initially read that in the press release that the jail sent out, that shook me because he'd been in solitary. He'd been put in solitary one day and killed himself the next day. And I deeply understood that. Like, I understood where he was mentally at that point or, you know, at least, I felt like I did because I'd been there. And I wrote that story.
And then about a week later, this 15-page, heartbreaking letter arrives in the mail. And it starts with, you know, something to the effect of, like, these are the reasons that I'm killing myself. And then he starts saying everything that's wrong with his life. And then he starts telling me about his life - you know, going back to, like, you know, the first time he fell in love and how he met his wife and how he became addicted to drugs. And, you know, some of these were themes that also really resonated with me.
And then he decided, no, I'm not going to kill myself today. And he put down the letter for a few weeks and then pick it back up and be like, OK. I'm starting again. And he did this off and on for four months. And then I mean, presumably, right before he actually took his own life, he put this in the mail. And, you know, I got it. And I thought that this was - you know, this is difficult as a reporter because, you know, it's always touchy reporting on issues around suicides. But at the same time, I felt like this really highlighted some systemic problems.
GROSS: So let me back up a second. Had you met him before he wrote to you?
BLAKINGER: No. And I - he actually wrote to the paper generally. But because I'm the prisons and jails reporter, all of the jail mail lands on my desk.
GROSS: I see. And so you had already known that he killed himself when you read his letter.
BLAKINGER: Yes. I saw the name on the return address. And I was like, oh, wow. I know who that is.
GROSS: Had you covered the suicide?
BLAKINGER: Yeah. I'd written one story about the suicide when it happened, and then this letter showed up a week later. And, you know, I knew his name because I had written it in the first story. I mean, the jail was very transparent about it. When there's an inmate death, they tend to send out a - you know, they send out a press release. They don't try to hide it. And so I wrote about it when they initially informed us of the death. And then, you know, a week later, I got this letter. So I was able to tell a larger story there.
GROSS: On the Houston Chronicle website, there's two pictures of David Ford from two different articles you wrote. The first one has a picture of him - and he's an inmate. The first one has a picture of him toothless, and he's kind of showing his gums with no teeth. He was having a lot of trouble eating as a result, but he wasn't allowed to get dentures. And I'll ask you to explain why in a moment. But the second photo from a later article of yours, he has dentures. And he has this big smile on his face. He looks like a different person. So he went four years without dentures, without any teeth. Tell us how you started to write about him, how you knew his story.
BLAKINGER: Well, initially, that started with a tip from a murderabilia dealer who told me that he'd...
GROSS: I'm sorry - murderabilia.
GROSS: I don't - I'm not familiar with that.
BLAKINGER: People sell art and, you know, artifacts from people that have, you know, committed murders - you know, weird things - fingernails, artwork, hair clippings. And I had met one that I was interviewing. And he was telling me about how he'd heard that all of the Texas prisoners were going to get dentures. And I was like, wow. That sounds like a cute, little story. So I called up the prison. And they were like, no, that is not true. So then I sort of started poking into it more. And I found out that this was completely a rumor. But it was a widespread problem that they weren't giving people dentures and would instead offer to blend up regular mess hall food and put it in cups and give it to you. And this had been their practice for, you know, about 15 years.
Prior to 2003, 2004, they'd had a vocational program where they would - where the inmates would learn to make dentures and, thus, provide dentures for other inmates. But then that got cut in 2004 for reasons that were not entirely clear. And after that, they drastically cut down the number of dentures that they were giving out. So I started putting in requests to get data to try to quantify these things. And I started writing inmates and being like, hey. Tell all of your friends who need dentures to please write me. And I did that over the course of, you know, almost a year. And one of the guys that I ended up in touch with was David Ford. And he was at a prison that was close enough that I could visit. And so I decided to pay him a visit. And he's just an incredibly nice, incredibly positive guy. I mean, for someone who's got a decent amount of time left to do and didn't have any teeth, he was incredibly positive about life in general. So...
GROSS: So how did your article change the regulations about dentures?
BLAKINGER: Well, after it came out a few weeks later, the prison system decided that they were going to change their policies and make dentures more broadly available and that they were going to create a dentures clinic at one of the units and hire a dentist. And - you know, and that was great. And then I found out, I guess, last week - and I wrote that for this week - that the way they're going to do this in an affordable manner is by 3D-printing dentures on site. So that's - I had never heard of that. I didn't know that you could 3D-print dentures and neither did David Ford. He didn't - he'd never heard of 3D printing. But I told him when I saw him last week. And when I went to visit, he had teeth. And it was a really cool moment for me.
GROSS: So are you getting a lot of Christmas cards from prison now?
BLAKINGER: (Laughter) I got three Christmas cards from prison this year. I also got an invitation to a Christmas party, which I was not able to attend, which was unfortunate. And I've asked that they please invite me next year.
GROSS: A prison party.
BLAKINGER: Yes, a prison party, which is stressful in and of itself. I mean, going to prison just to go to a party - like, I mean, I've been on those prison Christmas parties from the other side. But in this case, I was invited because they were like, you're a good reporter. And you've done things that have, you know, created change at our unit. And we'd love for you to be here. So I was like, yeah. You know, I'd love to be there, too. And it didn't work out this year. But I'm hoping that I can make that work out in the future.
GROSS: What was so stressful about prison Christmas parties when you were in prison?
BLAKINGER: I mean, they're not the most fun parties.
BLAKINGER: I - yeah. So Christmas was not actually as - was not actually that memorable to me in prison but Thanksgiving really was. I was on a really bad unit at that point. And, you know, we didn't get along. There was a lot of fights in the bathroom. And I went out that morning to go to visitation. And the person I was dating was visiting me. And, you know, we made ourselves a little Thanksgiving meal by buying food out of the vending machine and carving the word turkey onto the Snickers. And then I went back to the unit, expecting that, you know, the rest of the day was just going to be reading in my bunk and, you know, not enjoyable.
And then there was five or six girls - some of the sort of meaner ones - that were cooking a Thanksgiving meal for each other. And the officer was like, you know what? This is Thanksgiving. If you're going to cook, you're going to cook for everyone. And so we all pitched in and, you know, put in, like, canned peas and whatever other commissary items we had. And they cooked, and they made this amazing meal. I mean, there's some really incredible food that people are able to cobble together with, you know, commissary items and hot plates because that's what we had to cook with. It was, you know, four hot plates.
And it was just - it was amazing. Like, people just all came together and made this Thanksgiving meal. And, you know, it was just sort of one of those - I feel like it was just sort of one of those moments where you're watching people change because I feel like it's those sorts of interactions, those sorts of, like, rare moments of coming together that are how change happens over time. And, you know, some of those people, of course, got out and have been back. And some people have gotten out and succeeded. And I've kept in touch with a number of the women that I spent time in prison with, including that Thanksgiving and other holidays.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I'm so glad that you survived your suicide attempt, your drug habit, prison and that you're doing such interesting work now. Thank you so much. I wish you happy holidays and a good and healthy 2019.
BLAKINGER: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Keri Blakinger is a criminal justice reporter at the Houston Chronicle. This is FRESH AIR.
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