Reporter drew on life experience to report on inadequate prison dental care Date: 05/01/19
By Mary Otto
Much remains unknown about the oral health status of more than two million incarcerated Americans, but research suggests that many dental needs go unmet behind bars.
Reporting on the problem can be challenging. But in a recent project we wrote about, Keri Blakinger, who covers breaking news, prisons and the death penalty for the Houston Chronicle, found a way to document the desperate wait for dentures in Texas state prisons.
In this Q&A, Blakinger discusses her work on the stories, which culminated in the announcement by state prison officials of an innovative 3-D printing program that could bring dentures to more Texas prisoners who need them. Blakinger, who came to journalism after serving time for a drug conviction, also shares a little wisdom on the gift of rebuilding one’s life.
Q. It sounds like your reporting on the unmet dental needs of Texas inmates stretched out over many months. What sparked the project? How did it evolve?
A. Initially, I heard about ongoing denture issues from a pair of murderabilia dealers. They actually told me they’d heard the problem had been solved and I thought it would make a nice story if the prison system had decided to start giving everyone teeth — but I quickly learned that was wrong, and the lack of dentures was an ongoing problem. That was sometime in 2017, and I started looking into it then.
Q. Did you confront any barriers in the process of nailing down these stories? If so, what were they and how did you address them?
A. As with all prisons reporting, the biggest challenge is that your sources are scattered across the state in secure facilities, which makes it challenging to find impacted people. I started by writing people I was already in contact with and then asking them to talk to their friends who didn’t have teeth, and then I built it out from there.
Q. You noted in one story that more than two dozen inmates contacted your newspaper with accounts of unmet dental needs and suffering. Can you tell us a little more about how that correspondence unfolded and what surprised you most about the calls and letters you received?
A. Generally, I’d write one guy and ask him to have his friends write me if they couldn’t get teeth, and then I’d ask them to have their friends write and so on. In some cases it became an ongoing correspondence, and in some cases it was much more to the point.
Q. Your description of inmate David Ford’s transformation is really memorable. The pictures of him, before and after he got his dentures are, too. What was it like to witness that change in the life of one of your sources?
A. It was incredibly gratifying as a reporter to see that kind of direct impact, especially since I did time myself — so the people this story impacted are people where I was seven years ago.
Q. Since your coverage brought attention to the severe shortage of dentures for inmates who need them, the state announced a 3-D printing program that could help address the problem. Is there any news on that front?
A. Currently, the plan is to have that ready to go in the spring.
Q. Finally, you bring some deep insights into your reporting on the lives of inmates. If you don’t mind, can you say a few words about your own story? Are there a few more words you could offer that might help the rest of us do a better job of covering prison life?
A. Before I became a reporter — as I mentioned above — I did time in prison. I’d been addicted to drugs — and selling them to support my habit — for about a decade by the time I got arrested, and I was sentenced to 2-1/2 years. I did about 21 months of that, then when I got out and eventually got my shit together, I became a reporter and ended up covering prisons. I was so incredibly lucky to have the support and opportunities and privilege to be able to come back from all that and do meaningful work because — as I’m reminded daily when I interact with people still on the inside — not everyone has that.
Keri Blakinger is a journalist at the Houston Chronicle, where she covers criminal justice, specializing in prisons and the death penalty. Previously, she worked the overnight breaking news desk at the New York Daily News after two years at the Ithaca Times. Her writing has appeared in The Marshall Project, VICE, The Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. Follow her on Twitter @keribla.