Born in prison, she's back behind bars on a mission

Deborah Jiang Stein, author of 'Prison Baby,' created the unPrison Project to help women in prison find their self-worth and realize that they can set goals and change their lives.

Courtesy of Deborah Jiang Stein
Deborah Jiang Stein speaks in the prison yard at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. 'What if 1 percent of these inmates furthered their education or helped their children take a different path? People can change – look at me!' she says.

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In front of a packed house, Deborah Jiang Stein had just confessed to running drugs up and down California and Arizona 20 years earlier when an audience member shouted, “You do know you’re in a prison and there are federal officers in the halls!”

Deborah laughed in recognition. The author of "Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison" and the powerful follow-up, "Prison Baby," she was born addicted to heroin. Now in her fifties, she spent her first year of life at a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia, with her birth mother before being put into foster care and then adopted by a white couple in Seattle when she was four.

Despite having loving adoptive parents, her Asian features left Deborah feeling like an outsider, and when she was 11, she found a letter in her adoptive parents’ bedroom revealing her origins. “I knew I was adopted but had no memory of prison or my birth mother,” she says.

Rather than confess her traumatic discovery to her parents, she dove into an emotional polar vortex. “A therapist later told me I suffered from PTSD and Reactive Attachment Disorder,” she says, “which happens when young children do not form a healthy emotional attachment with their mother.”

Deborah spent much of her teenage years in a drug-fueled haze. She took crystal meth and heroin, committed armed robbery and cash machine schemes, and even used her body to smuggle cocaine-filled balloons across the country.

What caused her to ditch “the bad life, while I still have a life,” as she detailed in "Prison Baby," was a horrible incident where a woman she was with stabbed a “scrawny, white guy with a four-inch buck knife” who was subjecting Deborah to unwanted advances. The man lurched away, clutching his bloody shirtfront. Years later, Deborah remains haunted that she doesn’t know if he survived.

After “white-knuckling” her way through withdrawal, Deborah began the process of healing—one that included reconciling with her adoptive parents, earning a Bachelor’s degree in economics, and, after 20 years of requests, receiving permission to visit the prison that was her first “home.”

Tragically, Deborah discovered that her birth mother had died from throat cancer, but that she has a half-brother, Nick, who is now part of her life.

Given that 7-10 percent of women are pregnant when sentenced to prison, and that 2.7 million minors have a parent in prison, Deborah’s experience was unfortunately all too common. Research indicates that 70 percent of the offspring of those incarcerated wind up in prison as well. It is not uncommon for three generations of women–mother, grown daughter, and the baby born behind bars–to become ensnared in this tragic cycle.

Over a decade ago, Deborah used her unique talents to begin offering writing workshops in women’s prisons. There, she discovered talented voices clamoring to be heard.

“Women in prison are a disappeared group, and the majority is sentenced for substance abuse and domestic violence offenses,” she says with an emotional sigh. “I want people to notice these women are not scary. They are wounded human beings who need compassion and life tools.”

Both are offered through The unPrison Project, or UPP, the nonprofit organization Deborah created in 2012 to empower women in prison. Since its formation, she has presented workshops to 15,000 female inmates, reaching 400 to 2,500 women at a time, in 10 states. Wardens in an additional 28 prisons in states including Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and New York have invited her in to speak. Her reputation continues to grow as speaking requests pour in from prisons overseas.

These institutions often house schools, as children stay with their mothers there until they’re 12 years of age.

“I visit prisons to present my core values: Everyone is loved, everyone is valuable, everyone has skills they don’t know are marketable. For instance, if you can lead a gang of 10, you have a high threshold for risk-taking–an essential quality for an entrepreneur,” she says. “What if 1 percent of these inmates furthered their education or helped their children take a different path?” She grins at the thought. “People can change–look at me!”

Long-range goals for UPP include creating programs like “Mother Mail,” where schools will mail monthly packages of children’s photos and letters to their imprisoned mothers, who then write back. Another goal is to create post-release resources, aided by volunteer counselors, therapists, educators, and spiritual leaders in the prison communities. In the pipeline are plans for a college scholarship foundation for the daughters of incarcerated women, too.

Projects that are crying out for immediate funding include the manufacture of a custom Goals Planner; inmates would use it to track their progress and aspirations in the areas of education, mental health, and substance-abuse treatment. Deborah is planning an all-prison book club as well. “Wardens have been requesting 100 donated copies each of 'Prison Baby' for their libraries before I come in to talk.”

Incarcerated women are responding to Deborah’s passion and message.

“She offers proof that the cycle of addiction can be broken and surpassed,” said one inmate at Albion Correctional Facility in New York of Deborah’s visit, “as well as confirmation that success is still an option.”

In addition to the prison workshops, Deborah is a keynote speaker at conferences for professionals working in law enforcement and corrections, foster care, and mental health services. “Doing this work has helped me forgive myself,” she admits. “I used to think the stuff that happened to me was because I was bad.”

Another reason her mission is so successful is that, as a single parent to 13- and 18-year-old daughters, she understands the stresses of raising children on her own. She made sure her girls never had to spend a day wondering if their mother loved them. Still, there is a new worry: Deborah has been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, an incurable liver virus. “So far it’s incurable,” she says optimistically.

If anything, this news has added to her sense of mission. “I feel healthy,” she adds. “It’s not a death sentence but adds to my awareness that time is limited.”

Hopefully Deborah’s work will have a lasting impact on how incarcerated women and their children are treated.

“My work is the ‘fault’ of the Federal Bureau of Prisons who invite me in as an example of a ‘bad girl gone good," she says with a wry smile. “Prison is my birth country. Going back has freed me.”

The unPrison Project is seeking checks and/or PayPal donations, donated Delta frequent flyer miles for travel to the prisons (each visit costs $2,500), and donated copies of "Prison Baby" for the UPP book club.
 Checks and other correspondence can be mailed to
 The unPrison Project 
8014 Olson Memorial #153
Minneapolis, MN 55427. Contact Deborah Jiang Stein at

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