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Deborah Jiang Stein: Helps Moms in Prison Find Their Voice

Born in prison, she changed family legacy of drugs and violence.

Deborah Jiang Stein spent the first year of her life in prison, born to a mother who was a long-time heroin addict, sentenced to prison when she was pregnant. Deborah, now a motivational speaker for women in prison, has a fascinating story. While she was adopted by two English professors, her early years of turmoil led to a life of crime, violence, and drugs. Only later, in her late twenties, did she transform her life. She stands as proof that anyone can rewrite their story and forge a new path. Here's more from Deborah:

Jennifer Haupt: Tell me about the motivational speaking that you do with women in prison. What is your main message for them?

Deborah Jiang Stein: I see myself as a scout and guide for women who seek an alternative reality to the one they are living, for themselves and their children. As a speaker, I open myself as an example of what it looks like to live with irreconcilability. I share some details about my fractured start in life and on into the present, with lessons I've learned each step along the way. We discuss forgiveness and redemption, and how I believe we are empowered when we can embrace our complete selves.

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While I used to think I'd "resolve" how I felt about my prison roots - a legacy of crime, heroin, and prison - I believe that the journey is to live with what's irreconcilable. At times I'm still uncomfortable with the reality of my prison birth. I do, however, see that acceptance is possible for everything, and that we can even embrace our dark side. What I once saw as a tragic, damned life I now call a gift. As I give voice to my own darkness, it shines a beam of hope about what's possible, against all odds.

I also keynote at conferences, as well as other women's groups, and address professionals in mental health, child welfare, and corrections. My message is the same. I leave my audiences with more questions than answers because if we seek and ask ourselves questions, we can face our secrets, our demons, and come out the other side.

JH: Tell me a bit about being born in prison.

DJS: I was born in the Federal Women's Prison in Alderson, West Virginia. I'm experiential by nature, and I could not absorb the truth of my prison birth until I set foot on those grounds. Over ten years ago I requested a tour. Up to that point I'd carried my prison birth as a stigma. I felt like scum of the earth. By the time I was seventeen I'd shoot up anything I could get my hands on - heroin, coke, speed, hallucinogens, meth...I'm lucky I'm alive. Even more so because I set aside the little pocketknife I carried as a child for a 10-inch switchblade and a .38 special. And so I turned to crime, violence, and drugs for relief, and also for revenge against a world I thought had "done me wrong."

"Scare the demon away," was my unconscious yearning when I wrote the prison for a tour. I learned more details about my history in prison while I was there and also that I endured the usual withdrawal and other infant symptoms - sensory overload, and physical and emotional delays. It is taking a lifetime to re-wire my brain and I am still learning how to manage these delays.

JH: Why did you decide to write your memoir and tell your story now?

DJS: My passion is short story writing, and in fact, I'm almost done with a manuscript of my stories. However, I first used my life story as material for a novel. Many agents and editors expressed interest but they all requested memoir. I backed away from that for several years, out of a need for privacy, and also because I need to learn about the special craft of memoir.

My story speaks to how we all yearn to find redemption, hope in our lives, and that we can learn to live with our demons. I'm an example of what's possible when the odds are stacked against a person and I've learned from my audiences that my story offers hope about transformation, and how a burden can turn into a blessing. (My agent is now shopping my memoir proposal.)

JH: What percentage of women in prison are mothers? Single mothers? What are the biggest problems that they and their children face?

DJS: About 85% of women in prison are mothers. It's unclear how many are single. Almost 2 million children under the age of eighteen have a parent in prison, and most of these kids are under age ten. That's a population larger than the city of San Francisco, larger than the state of Delaware.

The most obvious problem is the stigma of prison, and of course, the broken bond between mother and child. Women in prison are outcasts, and on top of that, women in the margins live with more stigma than men.

JH: Is there a high percentage of children whose mothers are in prison who grow up and wind up in prison themselves?

DJS: There are two schools of thought on this. Some research says that 70% of the children of inmates end up as offenders, whether the kids were separated from the environment of crime or not. That was the case with me.

The other school believes that children whose mothers are in prison become offenders themselves because society expects them to be offenders. This reminds me of the situation where, in a school experiment, teachers treated gifted children as low-achievers, and in turn treated low-achievers as gifted. The outcome: the gifted began to fail, and the once considered low-achieving students started to excel.

JH: Tell me about the book of daily meditations that you wrote, Colors?

DJS: After I cleaned up my life, I wrote a book of daily meditations, Colors: Multicultural Inspirations. It sold well and the book is even more relevant now, with our expanding multiracial population. Unfortunately, the book is out of print but the rights have returned to me so I'm excited for another publisher to pick this up again.

JH: When did you start doing writing workshops for women in prison, and why? How many workshops have you done? What is so powerful about helping women to discover their voices?

DJS: After my private tour of the Alderson prison a little over ten years ago, I felt compelled to give back to my roots. I felt lucky to be alive, to have survived even my birth. I returned to Alderson, and other women's prison across the country, to conduct writing workshops. I've led over 100 prison writing workshops, and one participant even won the Federal Bureau of Prisons' national writing contest. I've collected enough writing from my workshops for an anthology I'd like published.

I recognized, though, that I'd reach more women as a speaker. My work now is to address as many women in prisons as possible. I stand in halls filled with 200+ women at a time and when tears flow - which happens often, and with many - I acknowledge this as bravery. It takes courage for a woman in prison, for anyone, to stand up and show pain, and then find the strength to explore it.

Lighting the spark of hope is the first step to create a new reality. I believe I was born to speak, to use my voice to reach where most people won't go, to give voice to where women are hidden and wounded. It's ironic, since at times I was mute as a girl. I am moved by the magic and the mystery, the destiny of this full circle.

For more information about Deborah Jiang Stein, visit her website at www.deborahstein.com.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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