A 2008 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 1 in 25 women in state prisons and 1 in 33 women in federal prisons are pregnant at the time of their admission to prison. Grim realities face many of these pregnant prisoners: In most states, pregnant prisoners can be shackled (even during or immediately after labor), and the majority will have their babies taken away shortly after birth. Deborah Jiang-Stein’s debut memoir Prison Baby offers one story from out of these facts, illustrating the fallout of the prison system as experienced by the author, a child born to an incarcerated mother. At once a memoir about the prison system, transracial adoption, and addiction and recovery, Prison Baby succeeds in illuminating these issues through one woman’s singular, remarkable life story.
Jiang-Stein, now a public speaker and founder of The unPrison Project (a non-profit dedicated to teaching life skills to incarcerated women and girls), discovered her prison birth only by mistake. Early in Prison Baby, twelve-year-old Jiang-Stein accidentally finds a letter revealing her birthplace at a federal women’s prison in West Virginia, and societal impressions of prison consume her. She writes: “Born in prison? No one’s born in a prison. The worst place, the worst of the worst: prison. And the worst people, from everything I’ve heard in cartoons and seen in magazines and heard from talk.” Prison presents a sharp contrast to young Jiang-Stein’s suburban Seattle home with her adoptive parents, a highly-educated couple whose party guest lists included Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. Although Jiang-Stein had previously learned of her adoption, the knowledge of her prison birth sends her into a cycle of emotional “lockdown,” self-destruction, and isolation from which she won’t break free until her early thirties. Prison Baby follows Jiang-Stein through years of struggle to hard-won freedom and her ensuing pursuit of information about her birth mother.
Prison Baby works through vivid scenes and reinterpretation that only time, distance, and intense reflection make possible. Jiang-Stein presents a childhood of visits “to the principal’s office at least three times a week” and malicious mischief (including throwing a bag of flour onto the windshield of a passing Ferrari). In retrospect, Jiang-Stein identifies the effects of “sensory-integration issues often triggered in drug-exposed children” and can name the questions that haunted her early years: “Kids simplify,” she writes, “and for many adopted children it goes like this, a belief in our rawest core: if we’re good, they want us, and if we’re bad, they give us away.” Confusion about her dark skin and “racially ambiguous features” compared with her white, Jewish parents complicates Jiang-Stein’s early distress; her all-white classmates in 1960s suburbia add to the trauma when they casually fling the N-word at her on the school bus. Jiang-Stein’s strong sense of detail and pacing help illustrate how these pressures pushed her beyond the reach of her adoptive parents’ reassurances that they love her and consider her their own—well-intentioned words that can’t help Jiang-Stein confront the emotional trauma that comes to define her early life.
Jiang-Stein segues from her troubled childhood to her early twenties, when she rejects her adoptive family and begins a life of partying, scams, and drug-running. She writes, “After I read the letter about my birth in prison, my world blew up and life distorted forever […] I suppose I thought the more I could emulate my birth mother, the less distance would divide us.” Occasionally, the description of these years becomes cliché (“Why leave my one friend, my family—drugs”), but Jiang-Stein balances this with candid descriptions of her fears and physical suffering, which demonstrate how deeply the unresolved questions about her prison birth impacted and stunted her life.
Miraculously, Jiang-Stein stays out of prison herself and after a near-death experience begins a years-long fight against her addictions. As she turns away from drugs and crime, Jiang-Stein puts new energy into her search for information about her biological mother, a search that leads her to her prison birthplace. After the emotionally exhausting visit, she writes:
My first return to my prison leaves me with so many treasures, like a vase of clear water, sweet with a most precious bouquet inside. I need to take in its scents, take time to lift each flower, examine it up close and pull its petals apart. I need to absorb the potency of my return, integrate what I’d stashed in the recesses of my brain for two decades. I’d rediscovered the beginnings of my life inch by inch and renewed the bond to my time with my prison mom.
This discovery of something to treasure in a place of pain reflects one of Prison Baby‘s strengths: unflinchingly, Jiang-Stein shares both her struggle with fear and addiction, and the moments of understanding she stumbles across on her journey.
Jiang-Stein’s purpose—to share her story as one instance of the mental illness, destructive behavior, and deeply-felt suffering tied up in the prison system—succeeds in making Prison Baby a worthwhile memoir for readers interested in an introduction to the situation of children born in prison. However, Prison Baby doesn’t offer much beyond an introduction; more statistics or further commentary on the prison system and adoption would have made a welcome addition.
Regardless, Jiang-Stein compellingly shares her own story through fast-paced writing that holds nothing about her own experience back. As a memoir of transracial adoption, addiction and recovery, and the effects of incarcerated motherhood, Prison Baby opens a door into these crucial discussions.