Maria Shriver

A “Prison Baby” Back Behind Bars Helping Women And Girls

Image: Deborah Jiang-Stein
Deborah Jiang-Stein Terry Gydesen

At 12 years-old, Deborah Jiang-Stein snuck into her adoptive parents' bedroom and made a life-altering discovery; she found a letter revealing she had been born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother.

Jiang Stein kept that discovery secret for two long decades. She went into an “emotional lockdown” and spiraled from rebellion and rage to addiction and drug-running, before she was able, finally, to pull herself back from the brink of her self-destruction. Her new book, "Prison Baby," documents her story.

Now, Jiang Stein is back behind bars but on her own terms and in the service of her non-profit The unPrison Project. Her mission is to empower and mentor woman and girls in prison, providing them with crucial life skills and preparing them for a productive life beyond the prison walls.

There is a lot of anger and suffering in your book, but the word that recurs, connecting all the family members, is compassion. Can you talk about that?

What an amazing question; it’s great that you see that because everyone goes straight to the suffering. I think from the day I was born I was surrounded by compassion. I mean looking backwards, I see that now. From my biological mother, to the prison authorities who were unsure of what to do with me, through foster care, I mean really all of the threads. For all the time I spent looking at the negative side of all that, now I can see that I was really just surrounded by love and compassion; not always with the best results, but the intentions were good. And that’s really what’s formed me today, so that I could even write the book, is that there was that foundation of love and compassion and how can we do something different. And my work of going back into prisons is that same loving kindness with some really concrete tools.

Tell me about your work with the unPrison Project. What is your mission?

It’s twofold. Initially I went in because I’ve overcome a lot of what the women either have overcome, or want to, or their children have. Many have lost their children, or have children -- the majority do. So, I want to put a face on success, of what that can look like; the other side of a child born in prison; the other side of addiction. I’m trying to show that and model it as a mentor, but the other thing is, one woman at a time, I’d like to see less incarceration. So, I’m hoping to open some doors for healing and change with education and other resources that are very concrete.

I want to put a face on success, of what that can look like; the other side of a child born in prison; the other side of addiction.

I can’t do all that work, of course, but I’m in there suggesting some ways to do it and a good reason to do it and how it can be done. Because I see leaders inside. We don’t hear a lot about what I see, which is potential leaders who are so wounded that all they know is one track of drugs and alcohol, the same track I was on, of self-destruction. But I was given resources.

You’ve talked a little bit about how the risk-taking instinct that plays a part in criminal behavior can be redirected into an entrepreneurial mindset.

I just said that in a prison the other day. I only recently started to say it, that that is a skill that they have, that very few people have, which is a high threshold for risk. And their faces just light up because they haven’t thought of it as a skill. It’s been a survival skill, but what if we use it as a tool to do something really different and positive? That’s why I know that they’re potential leaders. So, that’s new information for a lot of them, that that is a skill; instead of using it against themselves or against someone else, what if it were to be used as a teaching tool? So, that’s pretty amazing.

We have a huge prison population, but why that is or who is in the system, does not dominate our conversation. Why?

That’s such a great question. I ponder that all the time. There are many other things to talk about, but it is such a huge budget item, and such a waste of resources and human resources, that I’m shocked that we don’t address it right away. I do think it’s because we’ve looked at it as a crime problem. As a government, as a community, as individuals, we see this as about crime instead of about public health and mental health.

Because if we looked at it through the frame of a public health problem, it’s completely different. So, that’s one of the reasons that I do this work, is to try and reframe it, because it has nothing to do with -- some of it does -- but very little to do with criminal justice. We’ve got stuck on that track and it’s just escalating, and more for women now, the rate of increase is greater.

It’s difficult to hear there are babies living in American prisons. But the situation, especially when it comes to separating mothers and babies, is complex. Can you talk about that?

I keep seeing that it gets more and more complex even though I want to see more answers. I’ve been in a number of the prisons that have nurseries, so I see the bonding, and then I know my experience, because I think that year I had inside has formed me into being a complete person. But people will debate that other side. I don’t know that I have an answer, because sometimes what if it is better to separate the child and mother at birth? Because then there’s not the trauma of multiple separations, which was my case.

I can’t go backwards and say which is better, but really it took me a lifetime to deal with all those multiple separations. But then when I’m in prison and I see these babies and mothers and I know that the evaluations are showing that the women, once they’re released rarely go back, because they’ve bonded with their babies in prison, they’ve then been released together, and their lives have changed. That’s a really positive answer right there, but I don’t know that that would work for everybody.

Many readers will feel a lot of empathy for your mother who dealt with your anger and rejection. As a mother yourself now, how has your understanding of how she coped evolved?

Especially as a mother now, I’m amazed that she had the stamina. We hear about all these adoptions that are called “failed,” which, I’m not crazy about that term, but I would have been considered one of those if my parents hadn’t stood by me. But they did, especially my mother. So, there’s some kind of magical stamina there that not every parent has.

Honestly, I don’t know that I would have that. Not with the constant abuse, some physical, some verbal, and the complete psychological rejection. But what I know is that’s, I think, what also saved me in the end: that there was no amount of pushing that could have shown they didn’t love me. I work with foster kids, and I see that pattern all the time. It’s this constant prove that you love me, only mine took 25 years. But there she was, that’s the magic in it.

In the book, it seems like every time you get your life on track, another terrible challenge arises. Where does your capacity to endure come from?

It’s funny you ask that because an inmate asked me that the other day in prison. All I can think of is that I was angry and I used that anger...I kind of turned it into this thing of, “I have to prove to the world that I can be different.” So, that wasn’t the best reason, because it wasn’t for myself, but quite honestly it was kind of another version of F-U to the world. I’m trying to figure out a way I can frame that and use some different language when I speak about it. Because it was kind of that, sort of standing up and saying, “I’ll show you. Screw everybody. I’m going to do it differently.” So in the beginning it was to show everybody, because people expected it of me...everyone knew I could do better but it was expected that something was going to go wrong.

A lot of the book has to do with moving past the shame of discovering you were born in prison. Can you talk about your decision to call the book “Prison Baby”?

Oh, I’ve struggled with that. Actually my publisher, several publishers I talked to, wanted that and until recently, I can tell you, up until the book came out, I sort of cringed saying it. Because my whole book is about not wanting to be labeled and here’s this title that labels me, and so I knew that I would go places and people would say -- because it’s happened - there’s that woman who was born in prison. And I don’t want that label. But, first of all, I know it’s good for marketing, and what I’ve learned is that it just names it. It says the truth, and so that’s kind of the important thing. And reminds me that that’s just the fact and the truth and I have to live with it.

Your relationship with your father was complex and you describe a lot of fear. How do you think of him now and how did his Alzheimer’s change your relationship?

It was actually really loving. Using the word compassion, I was able to have that for him. I realized that how he had treated me was how he had been treated, because I’d just evolved to know that. But I also know that through all of that stuff about identity and where I came from, my father was always like, “Whatever.” It didn’t -- you know, I never fought against him that much about my roots. The part I had to deal with was his dominance of me, you know, physically he was a foot taller than I am, and all that.

I saw a human being who was frail and losing his mind and was full of fear. I realized that he was as insecure as I am; he was just an adult. But, you know, he was supposed to be the father and not do some of the things he did, but we were close in the end.

I had publishers actually say that to me, not about my story, but about my work with women, like, “Who would care about those women?”

In some ways, I didn’t have any of that complexity that I had with my mother. He found my prison work fascinating. It wasn’t threatening to him at all. At one point, I remember him kind of tearing up and saying, “I think people are going to notice this work.” So, I have those beautiful words in my head, because he was right. I thought, “Well, who’s going to care about anyone in prison?” Because I had publishers actually say that to me, not about my story, but about my work with women, like, “Who would care about those women?” So, my Dad had some insights. It’s just a human story. Everyone has their own tragedy. And this is a massive population of tragic stories.

You talk a lot about the sensory-integration issues and impulse control issues, you have struggled with due to drug-exposure as a child. How has that struggle, and your handling of it, evolved?

You know, I learned about that as an adult. I mean I lived it as a child. When I was speaking to psychologists and audiences of social services, they were the ones that taught me that the symptoms I have are the result of some of that. Now that the book is out, and I actually publicly claim it, I feel a bit different. I had a prison staff person invite me out to dinner and they said, “But I read that you get over stimulated and you like to be quiet after you speak.” So, it’s kind of funny, because now that I’ve named it publicly, people are trying to care for it in a different way. But without that, I find ways to just -- without calling attention to it -- just quiet down, and go somewhere. I mean there are people that have ADD and deal with some of the same things, I think.

I just incorporate into my life. But some of the early things I’ve had about sound, and some things that made me snap, can still make me snap. So, I tell my kids, it’s funny because we’ll be driving and my youngest, who is 13, she’ll say, “Can I talk? Or do you have to pay attention to one thing right now?” Or if she’s singing, or the radio is on. They just get it. It’s not like they have to take care of me, they just know that I’m wired that way.

You say we are a “fix it” culture, that we believe we must reconcile everything. Why is that so corrosive?

I think it sets our expectations to something that’s maybe not - even if it were the best - maybe it’s not the only way. We’ve become stuck on this happiness route. And that’s sort of a goal always outside of ourselves.

I don’t know where that starts. I think it’s a very Western thing, it’s not an Eastern thing, from what I know about Eastern philosophy. I think it always keeps us outside of ourselves, even though it’s wrapped up in a lot of internal exploration, the whole happiness movement. And I don’t know where we got stuck on it, but I don’t think it helps us at all, and for people that are trying to be happy all the time, it makes it worse, I think, because then they feel like they never can get there. But what if we were just to find some things to be content with and then gather a lot of those? I suppose it could be called happiness. But if we have a lot of contentment, well, it’s joy, which is different than happiness, I think.

To read an excerpt from "Prison Baby" visit