Moving America Forward

Born in Prison Herself, She’s Helping Women Break the Incarceration Cycle

April 1, 2014
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Born in Prison Herself, She’s Helping Women Break the Incarceration Cycle
Deborah Jiang Stein
Deborah Jiang Stein is on a mission to keep mothers out from behind bars for good.

If you believe your tween and teen years were difficult, think again.

When she was just 11 years old, Deborah Jiang Stein discovered a letter containing an explosive secret that her adoptive parents hid from her. The letter detailed the fact that Jiang Stein was born not only to an incarcerated mother, but addicted to heroin herself. Plus, she learned that she spent the first year of her life behind bars.

Traumatized by this revelation, Jiang Stein led tumultuous teenage years during which she was addicted to drugs, committed robberies and smuggled drugs. When she witnessed an acquaintance stab a man, Jiang Stein vowed to turn her life around. And she did just that — reconnecting with her adoptive parents, earning a college degree, and writing the memoirs Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison and Prison Baby.

Jiang Stein’s birth in prison is sadly, not unusual — according to Sherry Amatenstein of TruthAtlas, seven to 10 percent of all incarcerated women are pregnant, and 70 percent of the children of incarcerated women one day end up in prison themselves. According to Jiang Stein’s website, three percent of American kids have a parent in prison.

Jiang Stein, who is now in her fifties, has dedicated her life to connecting with imprisoned women and teaching them they have value and can still turn their lives around. She travels the country giving seminars and leading writing workshops for incarcerated females. “Women in prison are a disappeared group, and the majority is sentenced for substance abuse and domestic violence offenses,” she told Amatenstein. “I want people to notice these women are not scary. They are wounded human beings who need compassion and life tools.”

In 2012, Jiang Stein founded The unPrison Project, a nonprofit whose goal is “to empower, inspire, and cultivate critical thinking, life skills, self-reflection, and peer mentoring for women and girls in prison.” She presents workshops in prisons across the country and plans to expand her nonprofit’s mission to offer “Mother Mail” — packets of letters and artwork sent from schoolchildren to their moms in prison. She aims to provide incarcerated women with goal planners they can use to advance their education and help with substance abuse treatment. She also wants to connect formerly incarcerated women to assistance with jobs, housing, and parenting. Jiang Stein told Amatenstein, “Prison is my birth country. Going back has freed me.” And now her work is freeing other women too.

MORE: This Judge Figured Out How to Keep People Out of Prison by Treating Them Like His Own Children

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