I first met Deborah Jiang-Stein last year when she was part of a CLPP
panel I moderated on – what else? – the myth of the “good mother.” Deborah shared her story of being born in the prison system, which she chronicled in her memoir, Prison Baby
. She also shared with us the realities of what incarcerated women are currently faced with, and let us know about her newest project, Women Behind Bars
, a collection of stories from the women she’s met. I recently caught up with Deborah to learn more about her newest book as well as the other projects she’s been working on.
The Mamafesto: In your memoir, Prison Baby, you talk about being born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother, and spending the first year of your life behind bars. How did it feel to go back into the prison system to talk to the women who contributed to Women Behind Bars?
First, thanks for having me on your blog, Avital. When I began the book project for Women Behind Bars,
I wasn’t sure how the interviews would unfold because it was unpredictable which women would gain approval from the prisons to meet with me. Once I received clearance from the prisons, I consulted several journalist mentors to help me prepare questions before I met one-on-one with the women inside.
I’m deeply moved in this project and in a way, glad to use the circumstances of my birth and life story. My purpose behind this work is to raise the voices of women in prison into public view so readers and listeners on the outside can connect with the humanity of women in prison.
I hope to help lift the stigma, stereotypes, and shame surrounding incarcerated women. The majority have had involvement with substance abuse, also with mental health needs, lack of resources and access to education, jobs, and housing. When we address these issues, then we address major issues about mass incarceration in our country.
Especially for women in prison, I’d like to raise awareness about this. Over a 20 year span, the rate of increase of women in prison has surged 800%. Overall, almost 3 million underage children have a parent in prison. This is larger than the state of Delaware, larger then the city of San Francisco. These figures make clear one thing — it’s urgent we change the roots causes of incarceration.
Women Behind Bars is an excerpt from a larger oral history project I’m organizing to interview women in prisons around the country where I’ll then turn these tape recorded pieces into several listener and reader experiences: audio MP3s, a staged reading by actors, and either another e-book and/or print product. An exciting collaboration is evolving about this project and I hope to have that news soon.
How did the women you approach receive you? Were they eager to share their stories or apprehensive?
We all like to be heard, don’t we? Women in prison are hidden; everyone behind bars is hidden. The women are eager to meet and welcome the chance to share their stories. I view this project as I’m a messenger of their stories, and privileged to do this. They also welcome learning about my personal story, that I was born in a prison and that addiction, trauma, and many of the challenges they’ve faced, some touch me, also. But it’s possible to integrate all the parts of our stories and not categorize the secrets and trauma into a silent little pocket.
Sometimes the deeper dialogue in our conversations inside prisons bring up a lot of emotion in the women, and me too, but that’s what makes this a humanizing project.
Tell me more about the unPrison project
We’re on to something new for us and exciting at The unPrison Project. UP for Books
is our current drive to supply children’s books for mother child reading together on visiting days in prisons and detention centers, and also in treatment centers and homeless shelters. Anywhere in the margins where women and children gather for limited times, usually controlled by outside forces. We want to turn visiting rooms into reading centers for moms and their kids.
For a number of years I’ve brought in speaking engagements, and life skills workshops, and promoted literacy and education. Now we’re delivering “the goods” — new children’s books for mother-child reading on visiting days. If we fund this the way we hope, we’ll provide brief discussion guides for the books plus journals for the mothers. And, we’re designing a bookplate sticker so that the mothers can write a note for their children inside the book covers.
Over the past year I’ve been able to trickle in children’s books and we’re ramping up the campaign. Several Facebook friends and organizations have recently helped boost this with generous support either of books and/or mentoring. I’m always moved with the generosity of both words and actions. In fact, when I met you, Avital, you’re someone who reached out with a generous open hand to me with a few ideas. Thank you!
UP for Books is about to launch a collaboration with several major organizations in the publishing industry and I’m looking forward to announcing this any day now.
What’s next for you?
More exciting news: I just was nominated for the Rare Life Honor
, which if awarded, will award The unPrison Project (UP) with $50,000. This would bring UP into 20 additional prisons, reaching close to 25,000 more incarcerated women.
I’m gathering supporters because the nomination calls for daily votes up until January 6, 2015 when the judges review. I hope your readers and followers will help. It takes literally 2 seconds of a click and there’s nothing to sign up for or register.
The award is sponsored by Eagle Rare, the Kentucky Bourbon company, which is ironic because I don’t drink and my work with women in prison also focuses around drug and alcohol recovery. The Kentucky connection is synchronistic because my birth mother was sentenced to a prison in Kentucky when she was pregnant with me.
So please… votes, shares, and more of the same
. One vote per person per 24 hour period is allowed, and the nomination page has a Facebook and Twitter share button — so let’s work it! I appreciate all the support.