On a cold morning in upstate New York, I got arrested while walking down the street with a small Tupperware container filled with heroin. Even though I was at the tail end of my senior year at Cornell University, that outcome should not have been a surprise to anyone who knew me. I’d been struggling with addiction and depression for years; in fact, the spot where police picked me up was only a few houses down from the bridge where I’d once tried to kill myself.
I had, of course, lived — only to keep destroying my life and end up on my way to prison three years later. The whole time I was there, I kept a journal and by the time I got home in the fall of 2012, there was a foot-high stack of yellow legal pads waiting for me. The pages and pages of scrawling blue pen documented every detail of my life from a time when I was a broken person trying to become less broken.
Eventually, I did. I got a second chance that not everyone does, and I went on to graduate from college and become an investigative reporter. And those jailhouse journals went on to become the basis for a book: Corrections in Ink. It explores race, privilege, addiction, redemption and my journey through a broken system — starting just after the 2010 arrest that landed me in the Tompkins County Jail.
Even when they’re quiet, jails have a distinct sound. Every whisper ricochets off the cinderblock walls and heavy steel doors into a muffled cacophony—the echoing soundtrack of your mistakes in stereo.
Time melts. Watches are banned. There is no clock. Sometimes there’s a microwave that you can use to tell time, but sometimes the guards take that away—maybe because you’ve pissed them off, or maybe because other inmates want it. So instead, sound becomes your sundial. The buzz-clunk when the guards first pop the cellblock door means it’s 7 a.m. The rolling lunch carts in the hallway mean it’s noon. The crackle of the intercom announcing count means it’s 3 p.m. Your day is metered out by the noises of incarceration, an inescapable score that restarts every day and plays on a seemingly endless loop.
This is the new soundtrack of your life:
7:00 a.m.—”Razors! Razors!” You wake up to COs at the cellblock door screaming what sounds like a suicide suggestion but is in fact the offer to receive a single-blade razor for shaving. Five male “trusties”— the universal jail name for inmates who do the jail food prep and custodial work in exchange for extra privileges—bring in your breakfast tray. It is the one reliably edible meal: cereal.
7:30 a.m.—”Supplies! ” The guard assigned to your wing comes by with a cart loaded with jailhouse hygiene supplies: sketchy toothbrushes, doll-size bars of soap, and fine-tooth combs that tend to leave teeth behind in your hair. If you’re like me—which right about now you’re probably very glad you’re not—you’ll al- ways take a comb, rip off the teeth, and insert one in the space where your lip ring used to be. Comb teeth are the standard method for keeping body piercings from closing up when you’re in jail and real jewelry is banned. You’ll get used to it.
8:30 a.m.—”Cell inspection at this time. Inmates, prepare for cell inspection at this time.” When you hear this announcement crackle in through the cellblock loud- speaker, all contraband needs to be hidden in your jumpsuit. Guards are about to either lazily check with a passing glance that your cell is in compliance or aggressively rip through everything you own—you never know which. Either way, the morning inspection definitely does not include a strip search. So you learn to stash the basic supplies of life on your body. Commonly hidden items include butter from lunch, sugar packets from breakfast, various condiments, fruit, and black pens. All of these things can get you in trouble, as can another banned item: books in excess of the permitted ten per person. If you are like me, you will stash at least half a dozen books in- side your jumpsuit every morning, then frantically pass the extras to any other willing conspirators. For some reason the COs never seem to comment on the curiously lumpy figures that emerge in time for cell inspection.
9:00 a.m.—”Stay tuned to TNT for back-to-back episodes of Charmed.” You’ve probably just drifted back to sleep by now—sleeping is a full-time job in jail, so you’ll undoubtedly be doing a lot of it—but you’ll be startled awake when the CO turns on the power to the TV. It only gets about five channels, so you will quickly acquire an intimate familiarity with TNT’s daytime line-up: Charmed, Supernatural, Law and Order, Bones, and Cold Case, in that order.
Noon—”Trays, ladies!” Lunch is your only warm meal every day, and it generally consists of some type of unidentifiable meat chunks in gravy, two pieces of white bread, overcooked vegetables, milk, and a piece of fruit.
1:00 p.m.—”Five minutes till rec!” Five days a week for up to an hour and a half, you have the option to go out to rec, though the exact time slot varies. The fenced-in yard is a blacktop square—about fifty feet by thirty feet—with a basketball hoop, but no ball or net. There’s also no track or grass or weight pile like on TV, and it’s surrounded on three sides by men’s cellblocks. The only thing you can really do is walk in a circle while horny guys—some of whom you prob- ably know or have slept with, because this is a small town—bang on the windows to get your attention, the jailhouse version of a catcall. Still, it is the major social occasion of the day because it’s the only time you get to talk in person with the five women who live across the hall in B-Block. The rest of the time, your only communication is hand signs and charades through the cellblock windows.
5:00 p.m.—”Jumpsuits up—trays, ladies!” Dinner is always lukewarm canned soup, a cold sandwich, fruit or dessert, and milk. Most of the day you’ll walk around in your orange T-shirt or white long john shirt, with the pants of your jumpsuit on and the top hanging around your waist, held in place by the elastic cinch in the middle. It’s a universal trick of jail comfort, but the guards demand that you pull your jumpsuit all the way up before you can take a tray—an arbitrary requirement for mealtime formality in a place where this matters literally not at all.
7:00 p.m.—”How many for AA?” The limited and inconsistent program offerings for women tend to take place in the evenings in the visiting room. On Sun- days you have church, on Mondays you have AA, and on Fridays there’s your twelve-step-based recovery group. There is also a parenting class that has been “getting off the ground” indefinitely.
10:30 p.m.—”Five minutes to lock-in! ” Sometime around
10:30 or 10:45, you’ll hear the announcement on the loudspeaker that it’s time to lock in for the night. Then the COs come through and slide your cell doors shut.
And that’s it. That’s all your day in jail consists of. Obviously, this leaves a lot of free time in a small space, and figuring out exactly how to fill it will be one of your main tasks here.
For my part, I filled my days with reading, obsessive cross-wording, and running, making slow, plodding laps back and forth across the cellblock. In warmer weather, I could have run outside—but the sight of the sun wasn’t worth the ogling eyes around me. So instead I stayed in, using a yellow legal notepad as a ruler to guesstimate the length of the cellblock: forty feet. Every time certain guards walked by, I had to stop and walk. They said we weren’t allowed to run.
Lots of people run for the scenery, or the fresh air, or the rush of endorphins, or the feeling of accomplishment. In jail, I had none of those things. There, running was simply putting one foot in front of the other, no frills. No wind, no sky, no landscapes. After almost a decade of drug use, I’m not sure there was much left in the way of endorphins, and the sense of accomplishment was minimal. I did not, after all, go anywhere.
Since I was not exactly a star athlete anymore, achieving my daily four-mile goal was a time-consuming undertaking that ate up most of my mornings. Afternoons, meanwhile, were for writing letters, and evenings were for journaling, recording in detail every nuance of my new life in a fishbowl.
I had been a journaler much of my life, and when I was younger I’d written in a hieroglyphic-like code designed to hide dark thoughts from snooping teachers or parents. But over the years of decay that code had become a way to discreetly keep a ledger of my illicit dealings instead of my inner thoughts. Like so much else, the actual act of journaling had fallen by the wayside.
When I picked it up again in jail it was because of Susan, the pagan lesbian who’d joked about my apparent newfound fame.
“It could be a book,” she told me. “At the least, it’s too weird not to write down.”
I laughed, but clearly she’d pegged me as the most likely writer of the group—and she wasn’t wrong. Just after Christmas I ordered a stack of yellow legal pads from the commissary and began to write obsessively. Overdoing it as always, I wrote so much it became a going joke on the block: Anything dramatic or even vaguely interesting we said was “another chapter for Keri’s book.” A girl I used to get high with on the outside jokingly proposed a tongue-in-cheek title: IV League. It was a thing that absolutely none of us ever thought would really be published. After all, we were just a bunch of fuck-ups waiting to turn the page on our own lives. Who would want to read our stories?
In jail, there are risks to journaling. Everything in your possession is constantly subject to confiscation; the paraphernalia of your life can always be used against you one way or another, as some sign of guilt or ill-intent. Just to be safe, I sent a few pages of what I wrote to people on the outside every few days, mailing out pieces of myself like a molting animal.
The skins I shed were angry, or grateful. Insightful, full of bold self-deception. I’d be full of hope one day and wishing for death the next. Convinced I had finally found God in one sentence, and ranting about cellblock drama two lines later. At the time, I detailed it all with delight and snark—it seemed safe to laugh at the jailhouse disputes that I took for nothing more than low-stakes spectacles. Looking back, I see they were not. Behind bars, the stakes are almost never low.
One of the first dramatic episodes I detailed was that of Brandy, the rule-breaker who spent so much time in solitary. It all started after she called an officer an asshole and lost her job assignment. He probably deserved it, but the guards retaliated against her name-calling by taking everything she had. After she lost her job as a trustie, they locked her in solitary, threw out her commissary food stash, cut off her phone privileges, made her go to rec alone, and took her long underwear—the extra layer of clothing we all needed to stay warm in the winter. They told the rest of the women not to call her family or use the microwave for her. They refused to give her grievance forms to file complaints. She had nothing left and no recourse—so she just stopped giving a fuck. She began routinely flouting the rules, doing things guaranteed to keep her in trouble. It wasn’t a mental health crisis or break with reality. It was just a woman with nothing to lose.
For the rest of us, it was exhilarating to witness. She said and did all the things we all wanted to, telling off the meanest guards as we cackled quietly in our cells. One day she got under the blankets at 9 p.m.; the rules say you cannot do that until 10 p.m. But now, Brandy didn’t give a shit—and she decided to boldly gaslight the guards when they called her out on it.
“It’s nine! I can get under the fucking blankets at nine!”
The guard on duty that night—Blackburn—was a gray- haired elvish woman, a few inches shy of five feet. She looked like a storybook grandmother, but one who had mysteriously traded in her wand to work in corrections. She was usually taciturn, with no sense of humor and a nasally voice.
“It’s ten,” she said flatly.
“No it’s not. It’s fucking not!”
“It’s nine! It’s always been fucking nine!”
“I don’t fucking care! And you’re wrong!”
From the sidelines I was thrilled at the standoff, which went on for ten minutes before Blackburn confiscated the blankets altogether. Undaunted but fuming, Brandy jotted a letter to her boyfriend, venting her complaints. On the outside of the envelope, she scrawled: “The COs, esp. Blackburn, are fucking cum-guzzling gizabel bitches.”
Then, she put a stamp on it, waved it around to show all of us, and handed it over for outgoing mail. Blackburn picked it up, read the envelope, and promptly flipped the fuck out, running up and down the hallway telling the other guards about this incendiary act, and demanding to know: “Do I have to mail this?!” She was so short that, from our cells, we could only see the graying top of her head as she buzzed angrily back and forth.
“Brandy,” I whispered, “I think you mean Jezebel. Gizabel isn’t a word. Jezebel is a biblical whore.”
She was thrilled at the input: “Now I’ll sound smarter when I cuss her out next time.”
She grinned conspiratorially, and we all watched Blackburn continue to flip out in the hallway. In the dreary world of jail, this was high entertainment—and Brandy was willing to provide it almost every day, with delightfully colorful language. But I probably would not have laughed as much if I knew how this would end: For her string of nonviolent, petty disruptions, Brandy ended up spending more than half of her eight-month sentence in solitary confinement.
Eventually, they shipped her out to a jail one county over in Tioga, where rules in solitary were much harsher. There, she was locked in a cell with a door instead of bars. She could not play cards at the cell gate anymore. When she went to rec— alone—she would be shackled. During the day, she could not even sleep on the mattress, let alone under her blankets. She had no commissary or possessions. She could not use the phone, so when her boyfriend decided to break up with her and move to New York City, he did it in a letter. Meanwhile, she sat alone in a barren cell all day, every day for months. It had never occurred to me that that was even a possibility.
I didn’t know it then, but the truth is this: Jail is its own kingdom. The basic rules of engagement do not apply here.
It was into this world that my lawyer, a white-haired Southern man with a handlebar mustache and a tan suit, showed up one day as if out of thin air. He used funny phrases like “meaner than a two-headed rattlesnake” and “bless your heart,” and seemed like a figure I’d more expect to see in a stage rendition of Inherit the Wind than sitting across from me at the tiny table of the legal visitation room. He’d previously worked as a federal prosecutor, but at the tail end of his long career, he’d decided to begin doing appointed defense work to keep himself busy.
It seemed that there was nothing for me to like about him— and yet I did. He was smart and understood both my drug jokes and my Shakespeare references. But most of all there was this: He treated me like a person, not an object of pity or the walking bundle of fuck-ups that I so clearly was. I have no recollection of requesting his presence. I assume I must have filled out paperwork to be appointed an attorney. But if that happened, it was somewhere in my post-arrest drug haze, so I was somewhat surprised when this caricature of an old-school attorney showed up at the jail, telling me he would handle my case. There was, he informed me, not much he could do. While extraordinarily high, I had readily confessed. We could try to get the interrogation thrown out because I’d been so clearly incoherent—but it wouldn’t do much good: Regardless of what I’d said or not said, I’d definitely, positively, 100 percent had a large amount of drugs on me. “And possession is nine-tenths of the law,” he intoned wryly.
There wasn’t any real way around that fact.
Almost as surprising as the sudden appearance of my attorney were the updates that flowed in regarding my life on the outside—or my former life, as it were. For one, I found out that I now owned almost nothing; my apartment had been ransacked after my arrest. This is not uncommon; when your arrest is in the newspaper, all your drug friends—and enemies—know you’re in jail, and if they’re assholes, they’ll come help themselves to your belongings.
They were assholes. And so, somewhere in the first few days after I got picked up, looters took my books, my dirty under- wear, the sheets on my bed, my memories. My collection of skating medals had vanished, along with the hand-me-down winter coat from my mom, my favorite Diesel jeans—and my dog, Charlotte. Had someone taken her? Did Animal Control intervene? Or did she just run away in the chaos of looting? I still had no idea.
At first, I’d held out hope she could somehow be waiting exactly where I’d left her in my trashy basement apartment. Maybe, I thought, some kind housemate had heard her whining and decided to feed her. Maybe, I hoped, she would just stay put until Alex got back. Maybe, I hoped, she was okay.
Charlotte had come into my life three years earlier, just a few days after I’d jumped off a bridge in Ithaca in a very earnest suicide attempt during the summer of 2007. At the time, she was in rough shape—just like me. She was not quite two, and her first owners had gotten her a little over a year earlier, after she’d been found in a farmer’s field, abandoned and making herself a bed in the corn. They’d taken her in, but they already had four other dogs who bullied her and stole her food.
By the time I got her, her ribs still stuck out and she jumped at everything. She was scared of her own bark, and as soon as I brought her in the house, she saw my housemate’s cat and promptly peed all over the floor in abject terror.
Over the next few months, she got healthier even though I did not. Struggling my way through college, I brought her along to everything from office hours to final exams to English lectures. Her life suffered the same dichotomy as my own: We went to class by day, but crack houses by night. She saw it all—raids, robberies, tears, drunken fights. She stole my friends’ hamburgers, and their weed. She licked the blood off my track marks, and one time in an unexpected outburst of loyalty, she bit my friend’s drugged-out brother who’d punched me in the face. I didn’t think she had it in her.
She was one of the few things I’d done right in my addiction, something I’d kept alive even when I was trying to die. But now she, like so much else in my life, was gone. She’d been my failproof companion, and I’d lost her. That should have been the reality check I needed. But it wasn’t—not yet. Coming back to the sharp corners of real life after a blurry decade of drug use is a process. No matter how much you want to start over, you are not magically a changed person as soon as you set foot in the jail and enter a world of buzz-clunk-beeps and clangs. The clack of cell keys does not teach you remorse. The clash of a steel door does not bring you redemption.
There is no soundtrack here for that. If you want one, you’ll have to write it yourself.
From CORRECTIONS IN INK by Keri Blakinger. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Send the book to a prisoner.