ITHACA, N.Y.—“On one hand, it’s the place where I fucked up my life, but it’s also the place where I really got my second chance and was able to start over,” author Keri Blakinger says of Ithaca, where she returns a few times a year from her current home in Texas, where she lives and works as an acclaimed criminal justice journalist.
From growing up in Pennsylvania to not-so-extracurricular activities in Massachusetts and semesters and falls down gorges in Ithaca before stints at the Tompkins County Jail and Albion, Bedford Hills and Taconic correctional facilities, Blakinger recounts her childhood spent competitively figure skating before heading down a path of addictions, convictions and jail time.
Blakinger’s is a story that has been widely reported over the years: by the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal when she was arrested, the Cornell Daily Sun when she plead guilty and the Ithaca Voice when she graduated from Cornell University after being released from prison, to name a few.
Trigger warning now, the book discusses eating disorders, suicide, addiction and sexual abuse.
At 17, with an eating disorder in full swing and an ice skating career that ended abruptly with her pairs partner leaving her, Blakinger fell into drugs — using, selling, and eventually getting arrested with six ounces of heroin in a Tupperware during an icy Ithaca winter during her senior year at Cornell University, while she was working at the Cornell Daily Sun.
Sentenced to two years incarceration, Blakinger documented everyday experiences at the aforementioned correctional facilities while getting sober and learning how broken the system was from witnessing it firsthand, joking all the while with cellmates about calling it “IV League” — though that didn’t make the cut.
Saying in the book that she doesn’t think she fully understands how damaging prison was even now, she acknowledges that her privileges — being a white woman, an Ivy League student with a fairly minor sentence — affected her overall incarceration experience.
If you’re like me, you probably haven’t had a first-hand experience in a jail, let alone a state prison. With short chapters and a storyline that bounces between childhood, drug-riddled life in Ithaca, college and time in the correctional facilities, Blakinger’s story-telling and writing styles keep you engaged and interested.
The minute and nuanced details of life in an all-women prison are woven through each page: Seeing cellmates relapse into addiction or get banished to solitary confinement, fights over the TV remote and inmates brave enough to talk back to guards or make contraband jailhouse makeup out of colored pencils and toothpaste.
The chapters switch between Blakinger’s childhood and adulthood, providing the context of each plotline and never leaving questions unanswered — that is actually one of my favorite things about the book: you get to see how Blakinger’s perfectionist personality growing up (and subsequent disappointments with her Olympic skating dream and in herself) led to the self-destructive path of addiction that landed her in prison before she made the best of it and grabbed the second chance she was given.
After her 21 months in prison, Blakinger moved to Tioga County, and later Ithaca, getting her career start in journalism at the Ithaca Times before moving on to several other outlets and eventually landing The Marshall Project, an organization that focuses on issues related to criminal justice.
Blakinger said that her hope in writing the book is to help humanize people who are incarcerated, a sentiment that drives her work.
“I think that for people who are in prison, this is a sort of story that is a hopeful reminder of the possibility of second chances, making something good out of your darkest moments,” she said.