By Christopher Zoukis
Just how far does the reach of incarceration go? As Deborah Jiang-Stein found out, it’s generational. Curious about her birth mother, the adoptee did some digging and found out that her mother was a heroin addict that gave birth to her in prison. Not only was she born behind bars, but she also lived there for the first year of her life before entering the foster care system.
Jiang-Stein was shaken to the core by this news. She was 12 when she learned the truth and spent several following years falling into the vices of drugs and violence. However, Jiang-Stein pulled out of the cycle and instead of self-destructing, dedicated her life to helping and educating incarcerated women.
Her mission is called the unPrison Project, and it centers around building literacy, life skills, and mentoring for women and female youth in prison, and for their children. The educational emphasis is on critical thinking, goal setting, and preparing for life after release. The program also educates the general public about the downsides of mass incarceration.
In a stunning testament to the power of a woman on a mission, since its launch in 2012, Jian-Stein’s reform program has positively impacted more than 20,000 incarcerated women to date – a whopping 10 percent of the entire female prison population in America. That’s 20,000+ women with improved life and job skills, 20,000+ women with increased self-confidence, 20,000+ women with a plan for success after doing time, and 20,000+ women much less likely to re-offend.
In 2017, beauty brand L’Oréal recognized Jiang-Stein as a Women of Worth honoree and provided the unPrison Project with a $10,000 grant.
How important is Jiang-Stein’s work? Very. Between 1977 and 2007, the number of women in prison skyrocketed by 832 percent. With up to 10 percent of the female prison population pregnant at any given time, there are thousands of babies are born behind bars every year.
Being pregnant and giving birth while incarcerated is a dismal experience to begin with; a Mother’s Behind Bars report cites 43 states not requiring medicals as part of imprisoned women’s prenatal care, and 36 states still shackle women before, during and/or after labor (it’s not as if these women are going to get up during labor and flee the room, making the shackling both unnecessary and very problematic for the birth process).
Although times vary by state, on average, a woman has 24 hours with her baby before they are separated, unless the mother is in one of the ten states where nurseries are set up in prison, allowing a stay of up to three years for the child. However, the nursery program is not available for violent offenders or women serving longer than 18 months.
The victims here are not just the female prisoners. Whether they are behind bars for 24 hours or three years, the children of incarcerated inmates often bear the scars and stigma of their uninvited jail stay for life – and that is what Jiang-Stein is fighting so hard to overcome.
As with most prison reform, it comes full circle to education: for the mothers in prison, for their children, for the prison administrators on the care and protection of pregnant inmates, and for the public to better know and understand what truly happens when a child is born behind bars.
The impact of being born behind bars is a large one that spans generations. Jiang-Stein’s work goes a long way in improving conditions for the mothers and their children through education, and thanks to her tenacity, everyone benefits.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.