Deborah Jiang Stein, a Woman Born in Prison


he human heart is resilient. We hear this so often and may even know it to be true for ourselves. Who among us, after all, has not weathered a failed relationship, difficult childhood or devastating loss? And yet here we are, still standing, ready to go another round.

But what if the tragedy of one’s circumstances could have been mitigated? What if there was something others might have done to offer support, to help beacon a way out? Ideally, by one who had walked a similar path.

Today in the United States, over 150,000 women are incarcerated, and 2.3 million children under the age of eighteen have a parent in prison.

Deborah Jiang Stein was one of those children.

Deborah Stein profile

Deborah Stein

Born of a lifelong heroin addict serving time in a federal prison at the time of her birth, Stein even accompanied her incarcerated mother when she was placed in solitary confinement.

Now a published author and founder of The unPrison Project, which advocates for education, mental and emotional wellness, and addiction rehabilitation, Stein travels around the country speaking to incarcerated women, letting them know that this does not have to be the final chapter of their lives. Or the future for their children.

Deborah Stein ETG-cover


Seattle, Washington:

Deanna Phoenix Selene
: Why do you think the number of women in prisons has increased by 800% over the last ten years?

Deborah Jiang Stein: First of all, thank you for the interview. Most women are sentenced for nonviolent drug-related crimes, and most have substance-abuse of some kind, whether drugs or alcohol. Also, the majority have a diagnosable mental illness like depression or suicidal tendencies. All of these issues are on the rise, with fewer and fewer resources out here for treatment.

This was the case for my birthmother, who was a heroin addict, and for the women I meet today who needed substance abuse treatment and counseling, long before any law-breaking.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How can society better support women? What most badly needs to be addressed?

Deborah Jiang Stein: The solutions are clear in my mind: Increase drug/alcohol treatment and rehab out here, and provide mental health services. That, along with education to help address unemployment and housing issues, would reduce our incarceration rate.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: When you talk to women in prisons, I imagine you find many discouraged by the way their life has unfolded. How do you replace that sense of helplessness, that feeling that the forces working against them are just too great to overcome? I suspect you must go through periods yourself where you’re feeling discouraged. What inspires you to keep going?

Deborah Jiang Stein: I never feel discouraged when I’m with women in prison as much as I’m saddened because I know many of their circumstances could’ve been prevented with mental health and/or drug and alcohol rehab. The majority of incarcerated women have been abused, either sexually or psychologically, and this trauma needs healing, not lock-up.

Most of my audiences in prisons end up with many of the women releasing deep sorrow. The pain is unbearable to witness, and most I meet would welcome healing, treatment, counseling, if it felt safe.

Many of the women I meet feel hopeful as well. There’s always reason for redemption and change, even for lifers.

The women I meet in prisons inspire me. If anything discourages me, it’s our lack of funding for The unPrison Project, the nonprofit I founded to help build life skills programs and mentoring inside prisons.

You’d be surprised how hopeful many of the women I meet are. Not that hope cures everything. But without it, not much can happen.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What most surprises people to learn about women who commit crime?

Deborah Jiang Stein: Most people are surprised when they learn that the sentences for women are usually for nonviolent crimes. It’s so clearly a public health problem. Most people carry some stereotypes about inmates. Dangerous scary women. It’s not the case. Sure some are, but so are some people out here.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What similarities or differences do you observe between the women you encounter in prisons versus women you meet in your day-to-day life?

Deborah Jiang Stein: We are one in so many ways. Inside and out, we want respect, we want to learn and grow, we want meaningful relationships, we wonder how to better ourselves. Some have access to more opportunities than others, and some work harder to achieve quality of life. No matter what though, nothing out here compares to life in prison.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: May I ask what happened eventually to your own mother? It’s also ok if you’d rather not share.

Deborah Jiang Stein: My birth mother was eventually released, cleaned up, and in the end, she died of cancer. I never met her as an adult, which saddens me. She had a long history of addiction and would have really benefited from mental health care.

Like so many mothers in prison, she pled to keep me, to not lose custody of me.

Most mothers in prison either lose their kids to foster care and adoption, as what happened to me, or relatives keep them. None of it is a perfect scenario. Children need their mothers. I feel lucky I lived a year with my birth mother in prison. We bonded and I know this helped better prepare me for life. The downside, the trauma of our separation, after that year together, took its toll. She had a long sentence ahead of her.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: If you had to describe your telos, or reason for being, your life’s mission, what would you say?

Deborah Jiang Stein: Without planning my mission in life, it’s always been to work with those in the margins of society, since I sprung out of those margins.

Further Notes:

Deborah Jiang Stein’s memoir will be published by Beacon Press in March 2014. Find out more about this and more on her website.

Learn more about The unPrison Project.

The unPrison Project: Freedom on the Inside, a 501(c)3 nonprofit to serve the 150,000 incarcerated women in the U.S., and the 2.3 million underage children with a parent in prison. Advocates for education, mental and emotional wellness, and addiction rehabilitation.

The Prison Birth Project (PBP) is a reproductive justice organization providing support, education, advocacy, and activism training to women at the intersection of the criminal justice system and motherhood. In prison, 4-7% of women are pregnant, the same percentage as in the wider population; 85% are mothers, and 25% were pregnant upon arrest or gave birth in the previous year.

Deborah is the author of  Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison.

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My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

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