Deborah Jiang-Stein found inspiration for the unPrison Project in a pair of reading glasses. Jiang-Stein, the founder and CEO of the organization, which teaches literacy, mentoring and life skills for women and girls in prisons, was born in prison to a heroin-addicted mother. She struggled with addiction and brushes with the law, before turning those struggles into a career as a writer and motivational speaker in women’s correctional facilities, sharing her story to inspire other incarcerated women and bring books into prisons. However, there were a few basic but critical barriers to achieving that goal.
As she explained in a phone interview, in multiple facilities, “I saw a pair of glasses being shared. In every prison, there would be a couple pairs of glasses that were shared.” She also learned that the average reading level in these facilities was fourth grade. How could they read the books she brough them if they were blocked from reading, for both structural and logistical reasons? After all, she continued, “if we’re advocating employment and success on the outside, reading is just the basic right in the world, let alone this country.”
So Jiang-Stein secured donors who provided 10,000 pairs of reading glasses, and brand-new children’s books for distribution in visiting rooms around the country. These efforts helped start the unPrison Project, which helps cultivate tools for a successful life after incarceration. She also wrote a memoir of her life experiences titled Prison Baby.
She chose to focus specifically on women in prison, she says, because she believes any issue related to the “incarceration of women gets ignored. The number [of incarcerated women] has spiked 800 percent in recent decades, and it’s twice that of men. It’s a huge increase, and many—in fact, the majority—would benefit from services in the community like mental health resources, drug treatment instead of incarceration.”
The brief curriculum she developed begins with her own story, and includes advice on drug treatment, career counseling, mental health services, literacy, how to manage time behind bars, and how to build a life on the outside to ensure the women don’t return. Jiang-Stein travels to facilities all over the country speaking to both large and small groups. She tells them she knows “what it takes to survive out here… because I’m also in recovery, I know that it can be easy to face a disappointment and then be motivated to use again instead of trying to solve the problem.”
Her personal experiences—she spent the first year of her life in prison, later became addicted to drugs and has been clean and sober for 20 years—helps boost her credibility with the women she works with.
After all, she explained, “my birth mother was a woman exactly like the women that I meet. She was a heroin addict, in and out of facilities since she was around the age of 13… I was an actively using addict, I know what that lifestyle is, so part of the reason I do this is… I could have been sitting in those chairs in prison with a life sentence.” She continued, “I have the story that is sadly not so unique, but I’m an adult coming in as a peer, showing what the other side can look like by using the tools that I’m talking about. Being in recovery, learning to forgive, I value education, I continue to read and be curious and engage myself in a bigger world.”
While the organization doesn’t yet track former participants or their activities after prison (some may be in for very long or life sentences), the feedback has generally been positive. Cynthia Wallace, the program manager at the Dr. Jerome McNeil Detention Center of Dallas County Juvenile Department, agreed. She brought Deborah Jiang-Stein to the youth detention center, as she explained in a letter to donors that she shared with AlterNet: “The girls were engaged and asked great questions [like] ‘how did you begin healing, when did you forgive yourself, how did you find happiness, are you still afraid?’”
While Jiang-Stein and her small staff at the unPrison Project would like more opportunities to develop longer-term relationships with individual systems or facilities, she says, “If I go to one place two or three times then I’m not going to another place. And they’re close to 30 states now that have asked me in, and I’ve been in quite a few already.”
This year, she may finally get the opportunity to do both. The unPrison Project was nominated for a 2017 L’Oreal Women of Worth Award, to honor women who give back to their communities. While Jiang-Stein didn’t ultimately win the award, as a finalist, she and the unPrison Project won $10,000, great publicity and the chance to network with other changemakers.
Going forward, the unPrison Project is in the midst of strategic planning for the next few years, adding staff, volunteers and board members, developing an infrastructure that will help reach more prisoners, not only in the U.S. but also internationally. Jiang-Stein has had interest from Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ghana.
Learn more about the unPrison Project.
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