Babies belong in cradles or Pack 'n' Plays ... but a baby behind bars? While it sounds like a Lifetime movie, it was actually the reality for Deborah Jiang-Stein, who spent the first year of her life in prison with her mother, along with two stints in solitary confinement. She's the author of the memoir Prison Baby and (out in August) Women Behind Bars, an eBook collection of interviews with women in prison. Here she talks about her past, how she's coped, and how she is now helping others in similar situations with her nonprofit The unPrison Project, which aims to empower incarcerated women.
What do you know about your birth mother's circumstances -- why was she in prison?
Like many women in prison today, my mother was sentenced for drug-related crimes. She was a heroin addict. While I don’t remember, the records and family stories relate that I was addicted at birth. I spent my first year in prison with her. Throughout that year at different times, she was sent to solitary confinement, also called "the hole." Over that period of time I spent a total of four months in the hole with her.
Solitary confinement for a mother and newborn? What could that have possibly been like?
I've tried through hypnosis, visualization, and therapy to access those memories without luck. But I can imagine what it was like. Perhaps she had a pen, a few sheets of paper, and a Bible. I'm guessing the guards gave her diapers and blankets and other baby needs for me. Solitary confinement is known as a form of torture, but I'm quite confident I didn't suffer mental torment. In my mind, it sounds like a peaceful place where my mother could mother without distraction, in a room like any other except without a bunch of stuff.
Where did you go once you were released from prison at age 1?
I went into foster care and was adopted into an academic family. Both my parents English professors, so I had the opportunity of education and a deep exposure in the arts. I think creativity is the foundation and source of resilience and personal transformation.
When you learned about your background, how did you feel about it?
I knew from an early age and used to feel a terrible stigma about being a prison baby. But then again, I longed for my birth mother. I’ve grown to deal with that conflict because I've resolved that sometimes we're presented with impossible choices and unbearable circumstances that we can’t change. I also know I wouldn't be who I am today if we'd stayed together.
How did your life unfold as you grew up and became an adult?
In one sentence, my early life took a harrowing descent into depression, violence, drugs, and crime, as my way to cope with grief. The pre-civil rights 1960s was a difficult time to grow up multiracial in a white family. Altogether, it was a torturous climb back out of emotional imprisonment to where I stand now, a place of peace and contentment. The longer version is in my memoir, Prison Baby.
After you left prison, did you ever see your mother again?
I never met her again. The little yarn figure on my book cover is a toy she knitted for me in prison craft class and sent to me in my first foster family. I’ve had it ever since. After an extensive search, I did meet the rest of my birth family. We have a wonderful and loving ongoing relationship now.
How did this lead to you founding the unPrison Project?
Ten years ago I was conducting writing and creativity workshops in a few women’s prisons when a warden suggested I speak to the total population. This was the beginning of The unPrison Project, a nonprofit that brings a life skills program into prisons around the country. Mostly the programs serve women, girls, and youth; however, several men’s prisons have requested the work, also. Most people in prison have a diagnosable mental health issue, and the majority are sentenced for nonviolent drug-related charges, just like my birth mother.
How common is it for mothers to raise babies in prison?
The numbers are staggering: Over a 20-year period, the rise in the incarceration rate for women has increased 800 percent. According to the Department of Justice, the number of women pregnant at the time of sentencing ranges from 7 to 10 percent. Eleven states now have nurseries inside prison for a selected group of women to keep their babies and raise them in infancy during their sentence. Each state varies for the length of time the baby stays in the nursery, anywhere from 18 months to 3 years. Even if the mom and baby are released together, those who oppose prison nurseries worry that the potential risk of trauma for the child increases if the mother is sentenced for some future crime and the bond is cut. My understanding, though, is that the recidivism rate for moms drops drastically.
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How common is it for kids to have a parent in prison?
Part of the urgency in working for the wellness and health of those in prison is that 2.3 million children have a parent in prison. To put that in perspective, it’s larger than the state of Delaware. In fact, 16 states have a census count smaller than that population of children with incarcerated parents, and most are under age 10. If anything is going to change in this fractured part of our nation, it will happen when incarceration is treated as the public health crisis it is, and not a criminal justice problem. Addiction and mental illness are public health issues.
Should moms be allowed to raise their babies in prison? Why or why not?
Image via Deborah Jiang-Stein