When you are born in prison, addicted to heroin, there’s no place to go but up, right?
Not exactly. When 12-year-old Deborah Jiang Stein accidentally learned that her birthplace was not Seattle, as she’d been told, but the Federal Women’s Prison in Alderson, W. Va., and that she’d been born addicted to drugs, she went into a tailspin that lasted nearly 20 years and included drug addiction, drug running and smuggling.
Jiang Stein eventually came to terms with her beginnings, peeled away the layers that veiled her identity and embarked on a path of recovery that led her to share her life story with incarcerated women around the country. Her belief in the ability we all have for change is deeply held. “Our identities are flexible,” she said. “We can be of multiple races, including adoptive ones. And beyond race, we can define our own identities.”
In the middle
It would be easy to say that the little girl her family called Debbie led a charmed life. Adopted by two English professors, her life in Seattle included ballet every Saturday, piano and French lessons and competing on a swim team. She studied Hebrew in Sunday school and had an adoring older brother. But things weren’t as ideal as they seemed. She didn’t feel as though she fit in.
“I didn’t know why no one looked like me,” Jiang Stein said. A well-meaning remark from an older cousin provided the first piece of the puzzle, the answer to why her skin was brown, not white like her parents.’ When Jiang Stein was 8, her cousin innocently remarked that she was lucky because her parents had “chosen” her. She learned later that her older brother, who is Caucasian, was adopted too.
When Jiang Stein asked her mother about this, she confirmed that her daughter had been adopted. She told her daughter, “We love you,” and went back to her gardening. Though her parents loved her, like most adoptive families of the time, race and adoption just weren’t talked about much. When she learned the facts of her birth in prison, it was as if a wall went up between herself and many of the things she loved. She felt as though she was “less than.” Though she loved to dance, she felt that a girl who was born in a prison didn’t belong in a tutu.
Feeling “less than” led to her to a drug history that began with taking crystal meth in seventh grade. When she was thrown out of college for lighting fires and drug smuggling (she later earned her bachelor’s degree in economics), Jiang Stein began her street life.
Terrified after witnessing a stabbing, Jiang Stein fled Seattle for her uncle’s home in Minneapolis, where she traded drugs for heavy drinking. But, today she’s clean and sober-and thankful. “It’s a miracle I haven’t been incarcerated,” she said.
Counseling and support groups helped Jiang Stein to realize that her behavior might be a way of seeking to return to where she first felt safe and loved-prison. She believes in the therapeutic process, and encourages women prisoners to seek the same kind of help.
“Women will ask me, weeping, ‘What do you do with the pain?’ I tell them to ask for help. Some people think that means you are weak. But I tell them, ‘Do you think I’m weak? It takes real strength to say that you need help.'”
Some years ago, Jiang Stein hired a search agency to find the woman she calls her “prison mother.” She was devastated to learn that her mother, who spent her teen and adult life in and out of reform schools and prisons, mostly for drug-related crimes, had died. But Jiang Stein also learned that she had spent her first year living in prison, and that her birth mother had loved her and fought to keep her.
Jiang Stein established a relationship with her biological half-brother, and learned about her birth mother through the memories of those who loved and knew her best. She also worked at becoming close again with her adoptive parents. She supported her adoptive mother through her illness with cancer and her eventual death.
Jiang Stein respects those who work to reform the justice system, but her work through her nonprofit organization, The unPrison Project, focuses on women currently in prison. “I’m very spiritual,” she said. “I was born to do the work [of working with women in prison]. I was blessed to have both of my mothers, and I believe both would support me.”
Noting that her life has often been lived on the edge, and also that only 50 percent of babies whose mothers are addicted to heroin are born alive, “I am really lucky to be alive. I don’t take anything in my life for granted. And I don’t believe you can see the healing light until you come out of the darkness.”
The unPrison Project
Deborah Jiang Stein is founder of the nonprofit organization, The unPrison Project, a 501(c)(3). Through personal speaking appearances she has reached 15,000 women inmates at 20 different prisons in the U.S., while 27 more prisons have requested the unPrison Project’s services.
Her vision is to unprison the minds of incarcerated women, especially the mothers, by teaching new life skills and other tools to create a better life, and advocating for education, counseling and drug rehab. The unPrison Project works to raise awareness that most crimes and addictions are behavior, health and social concerns, rather than criminal issues. The more education, new life skills and healing the women receive while they’re inside, the better prepared they’ll be for re-entry.
• 2.3 million children (most of them under age 10) have a parent in prison.
• The rate of incarceration for women has increased 800 percent in the last 10 years, with the majority of crimes nonviolent and drug related.
• 85 percent of women in prison are mothers.
• The majority of women in prison have experienced emotional, sexual or psychological abuse.
• The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.