Born In Prison: One Woman’s Story of Working with Incarcerated Women

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Deborah Jiang Stein was born in prison, where she lived with her incarcerated mother for the first year of life. Her adoptive parents didn’t want her to know that.

She would discover her secret when, at 12-years-old, she was rifling through her adoptive mother’s dresser and found a document.

She finally understood why she didn’t look like any else in her white, Jewish family or like her schoolmates where she was raised in Seattle, Washington.

For years, Deborah never told anyone that she was born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother.

“You know, I was filled with so much self-hate before I even knew these facts,” she explained. “So adding on to I’m a different color, I’m from prison, I have this addiction in the background, which I didn’t know much about as a child—all of it I turned on myself and also blamed everyone else for.”

Soon after her secret was exposed, Deborah fell into a spiral of drug abuse and petty crime.

Thankfully, she never ended up in jail, but now she spends most of her time in prisons with women just like her mother.

When she turned her life around, Deborah became a national speaker and motivational educator.

She uses her own story of transformation to plant seeds of change, so that when the women are released from prison, they won’t return.

Through a nonprofit organization she founded, The unPrison Project, Jiang Stein seeks to empower incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring to help them prepare for a successful life after prison.

Today, over 200,000 women are incarcerated in the United States, and 2.7 million children under the age of 18 have a parent in prison.

Jiang Stein spoke with High Times about her work and life.

High Times: What are some of the prisons where you’ve spoken?

Deborah Jiang Stein: In total, I’ve been in front of over 15,000 incarcerated women and girls. In the last few years alone, I’ve spoken inside women’s prisons in California, Ohio, West Virginia, New York, Washington State, Kentucky, Maryland, Indiana and there are more planned for the future.

HT: How do incarcerated women react to your talks?

DJS: In all the prisons where I talk, if even a few find a glimpse of hope, motivation and tools to discover strength and new courage, then we’re a step ahead. We feel the ongoing, positive results of the unPrison Project will benefit our communities for generations to come.

HT: What are most women in prison for?

DJS: Most women are sentenced for non-violent drug related crimes, and almost all are impacted by substance abuse, drug addiction and/or alcoholism. States have blasted billions of dollars into incarceration that could be better invested in community resources for treatment, public health, education, housing and employment.

HT: We obviously have a mass incarceration problem in this country. How are the lives of former prisoners after they are released?

DJS: The personal cost of incarceration lingers for many years. So that an arrest for possession of even a tiny measure of marijuana will result in collateral consequences long after release. Eligibility for housing, job opportunities financial aid for education and much more, is damaged.

HT: Many of us thought that Obama’s last round of clemencies (and the one before) did not include enough female prisoners.

DJS: Yes, there are fewer women than men in prison, ratio to ratio, but look at the big picture—the incarceration rate for women has spiked close to 800 percent over the past few decades, twice the rate of men.

HT: Do you ever have the opportunity to speak with women prisoners on an individual basis?

DJS: Yes! I have over 25 hours of recorded interviews with individual women. Be on the watch for “The unPrison Podcast” radio series. Each episode will be a narrative journey. We’re currently seeking sponsors and support for this exciting development.

HT: How do the moms in prison celebrate Mother’s Day? 

DJS: Plain and simple, Mother’s Day inside prison is painful, wrenching.

Deborah Jiang Stein also wrote a book Prison Baby: A Memoir.You can follow the unPrison Project on Facebook:

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