Keri Blakinger on What It’s Like to Interview Someone on Death Row
This Week on Twitterverse, a Show About Tweets and the Writers Who Send Them
You’re tuning into another dimension. A dimension of tweets and the writers who send them. You have just now entered the Twitterverse. Each week, Gabe Hudson welcomes one of his favorite writers and pulls four of their tweets. The guest reads one of those tweets out loud. Then Gabe and the guest use that tweet as an entry point into a conversation designed to illuminate the writer’s heart and mind. Rinse, repeat. Presented by Literary Hub and Best Case Studios.
After Keri Blakinger’s time as a figure skater at the national level ended, she developed a drug addiction. Then as a student at Cornell University, Keri was arrested in Ithaca for possession of heroin. She was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, after which she became an award-winning journalist who covers death row in the Texas prison system. Keri and Gabe discuss some of the tough times from her past in Boston, and what she learned along the way. Keri walks Gabe through the entire process of going to meet inmates on death row. And Kari shares what Gabe considers to be perhaps the greatest Tweet of all time.
I just went to the bookstore I used to steal from to buy heroin 20 yrs ago when I was homeless and THEY HAVE MY BOOK so ofc I panicked & bought a copy and then sobbed in the alley.
— Keri Blakinger (@keribla) June 22, 2022
Keri Blakinger: I was in Boston for a book event and I was just like walking around, kind of fact-checking my memory in some ways. There are so many things in the book that take place in Boston, and so many shitty parts of my life that took place in Boston. I found the first place that I did heroin. I found the street that I was walking down as this woman who I ended up working for.
She was my pimp or whatever, and she explained how Boston sex work was going to work. I went by like alleys and rooftops that I was sexually assaulted on, and then I was walking by the co-op and I went in just because I was like, Oh, they used to have that café that had some really good snacks. And I walked in and I was like, Oh, that’s right. This is a bookstore. They’re going to have books. And then I went to try to find the memoir section. I didn’t really think it would be there, like it’s in a lot of bookstores, but I just somehow didn’t think it would actually be there. And then I saw it and started crying in the bookstore.
Not like sobbing. The sobbing was later. I was just crying. Not enough to attract attention. One girl was kind of like, This looks weird. And then I started taking selfies and that also looked weird. Like, why is she taking selfies with this random ass book? But then I was like, Oh my God, Now she’s staring at me. Things are getting weird. I just need to go buy a copy of this. I don’t want them to think I’m doing something creepy or weird because they just came in and took some selfies with your books.
So I just went and bought a copy, and I was actually worried that the clerk was going to notice the name on my credit card and be like, Why are you buying your own book, you weirdo? And then I walked out back and walked around the corner and into the alley, and I just sat down and was just absolutely overcome by it. I started crying. A little bit later, I tweeted about it.
If Hunter Biden ever worried that his struggle with addiction would derail his dad’s career, I hope he goes to bed tonight knowing that in the end it did not.
I don’t mean that as a political statement, just a hope from one recovering addict to another.
— Keri Blakinger (@keribla) November 8, 2020
Keri Blakinger: I think a few months before some commentator had made some observation about how he was impacting his dad’s career. I don’t remember who it was who would say that kind of shitty thing, you know. And I remember thinking, there’s so much that you do blame yourself for in an addiction, and I can imagine so well that you might in that position, blame yourself for that. Especially when Hunter became such a target during the campaign. And I’d been thinking about this for, I don’t know, a few months before the election and before the results were finalized. And then when they finally were, I was like, Wow, that must be of relief to him.
Gabe Hudson: I think he’s a pretty sensitive.
Keri Blakinger: I think you’re right. I just felt like that must be such a relief to know that you didn’t derail your dad’s life in such a huge way like that.
Gabe Hudson: In your own life experience, is there something that you might equate to that, like something significant where maybe you were carrying the weight for that, where maybe later you realize, Oh, that’s not on me?
Keri Blakinger: The thing is, I didn’t really have dependents or like people who sort of depended on me in that way. I wasn’t big enough to be derailed into anyone’s life. My derailing was not generally happening to the public until I got arrested. But I will say that I felt like I let my dog down, like I had jumped off a bridge in in 2007 when I was on drugs and I was not on drugs at that moment. But I mean, I was generally doing drugs and I was suicidal and I jumped off a bridge. I was trying to kill myself, but instead I fractured my back. And afterwards the person I was dating suggested that I should get a dog. Maybe that would prevent me from doing that again.
And so I ended up very randomly getting a dog from a friend of somebody that I met in the line at Walmart. And she followed me everywhere. And she felt like the one person who didn’t know that I was fucking up and she loved me anyway. And then I got arrested and she was not with me and I didn’t know what happened to her. And I eventually found out and there was a family that kept her that ended up becoming very close with me after I got out. And they eventually gave her back.
But one of the really cool things about this, aside from the fact that I now have this lifelong connection to them, they’re just some of the kindest people and they’ve forgiven me for things that I did before I knew them. You know what I mean? It felt really good when I wrote the book to be able to, in the acknowledgments, put in my dog Charlotte. And then earlier this week there was a Wikipedia article posted about me, like, I’m now Wikipedia famous, right? But they mentioned my dog in there. Charlotte is memorialized in Wikipedia, and I know that it’s only fucking Wikipedia, but like, it’s very cool to me. And I know Charlotte as a dog would not give a shit about such human things as online encyclopedias, but still feels good to feel like I did good by her in the end.
Despite the current interest in kids’ mental health in the wake of Uvalde, Texas is now cutting the intervention program designed to help the most violent kids in the state.
The ways in which this state fails its children are truly something else. https://t.co/FM6iwHakgV
— Keri Blakinger (@keribla) July 7, 2022
Keri Blakinger: People assume the hardest part of covering death row is witnessing the executions. Obviously, that is a lot. But I don’t think it’s the hardest part. And I think what you’re getting at is what’s harder. It’s the fact that you’ve built relationships with these people because you’ve interviewed them over time, and it’s so much harder to grapple with having interviewed someone who’s talking about what they anticipate their death will be like, what they anticipate it will be like to be executed, what they expect to save for their last words, like, you know, some of them are just shitty guys. I’m not going to act like everybody’s nice or something. Like, there are people on death row that are kind of what you think of as a person on death row. But I think that’s a much smaller fraction of the death row population than what people would expect.
Keri Blakinger: One of the interesting things is that, specifically in the context of death row, you’re more likely to end up on death row if you had a white victim instead of a black victim. That’s an aspect of systemic racism that people might not be as aware of. So in April of 2020, I tweeted update after this pub, the prison called to say my use of video from an apparently contraband inmate phone was, quote, participation in a felony and they would call the OIG to investigate. The prison called the prison cops on me.
Gabe Hudson: You’ve done so much investigating that you’ve changed policy. Right? Like some prisoners are able to have dentures now as a result of stories that you were writing about there.
Keri Blakinger: They actually didn’t change the policy. What they did was when I wrote about how they weren’t giving dentures to Texas prisoners who did not have teeth afterward, there was one particular state senator who was pretty incensed by that, and he leaned on the prison system to do something. So they bought a 3D printer and started 3D printing. So there’s like hundreds that have teeth because of this, but there are definitely hundreds more who still don’t have them.
Keri Blakinger is an investigative reporter based in Texas, covering criminal justice and injustice for The Marshall Project. She previously worked for the Houston Chronicle and her writing has appeared everywhere from the New York Daily News to the BBC and from VICE to The New York Times. She was a member of the Chronicle‘s Pulitzer-finalist team in 2018 and her 2019 coverage of women’s jails for The Washington Post Magazine helped earn a National Magazine Award. Before becoming a reporter, she did prison time for a drug crime in New York.