In a system that treats drug addicts as criminals—that incarcerates people struggling with addiction, instead of recognizing addiction as a complex disease and providing treatment— injustice piles upon injustice. The war on drugs has destroyed families, tearing parents and children apart. To what end?
Prison Baby is the memoir of Deborah Jiang Stein, a woman born in prison. Her mother was an incarcerated heroin addict. Jiang Stein’s memoir documents a difficult journey. She begins with her childhood discovery of the circumstances of her birth—a dark secret she was never meant to know. She then details the devastation and trauma that stemmed from her early, state-imposed separation from her mother—which was compounded by the insufficient resources available to her and her well-meaning adoptive family during her childhood.
Discovering the secret of her birthplace sent Jiang Stein into a near-deadly cycle of self-abuse that is painful to read about but important to understand. We are often so quick to judge and condemn others when we don’t understanding the context for another person’s actions—but context is everything. The context Jiang Stein offers helps the reader make sense of her early life’s senselessness—the terrible decisions and choices she made, despite the love and support of her adoptive family, all painful reactions to her circumstances; her feelings of being an outsider, an “other” in our society in so many ways; and the weight of her secret about her prison system origins upon her young psyche, stunting her psychological and emotional development.
Ultimately, however, Jiang Stein’s story is one of hope. Her research into her history, her recovery from self-abuse, her peacemaking with herself and her family, her service to others, and her personal healing all prove to matter very much. They show that whatever our beginnings—whatever our flaws and our burdens—we can find contentment in life. We can give up the “If onlys” and “What ifs” that break our hearts and crush our souls, instead coming to terms with our pasts and forging a new future. Even for those who are so-called hopeless cases, Jiang Stein implies, hope is possible.
Prison Baby is also a call for change. Although much has improved about our penitentiary system since Jiang Stein spent her infancy within prison walls and was wrenched away from her devastated mother, there is still much work to be done. It is heartening to see that Jiang Stein herself is engaged in crucial work with incarcerated women and girls. But this work doesn’t fix the system, either. As such, her story shines a light on the fact that we still need better solutions to our society’s problems with drug addiction and better ways of serving incarcerated women and girls.