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Born in Prison

Born in Prison

By Deborah Jiang-Stein

SourceMarta Jonina/iStock


Because it’s not always boring to hear about other people’s dreams. 

By Deborah Jiang-Stein

I was born in prison, at the hospital on the grounds of Alderson Federal Prison Camp, in West Virginia. Only nine prisons in the country have baby nurseries on-site — and very few inmates are allowed to keep their newborns by their side. My biological mother was one of them.

Me? I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Born to a chronic heroin addict who happened to be pregnant at the beginning of her 10-year sentence. She was there for drug-related crimes — like the majority of incarcerated women today. Apparently my mother had made no plans for me after birth. The authorities hadn’t gotten around to arranging foster care.

So prison it was.

Call it my immaculate incarceration — I was wholly innocent and sentenced by circumstance.

During those first months, when most infants are swaddled in soft blankets and nursed in rocking chairs and put down in cushy cribs with cute mobiles of singing birds dangling overhead, I was spitting up formula in a prison cell. According to files, I wouldn’t take my mother’s milk. I didn’t take her arms at first either — drug babies often resist being held in the beginning.

Still, records show we stayed close. Real close. A total of four of those months my birth mother and I spent together on a small bed, day in, day out, in a room the size of a closet. In solitary confinement together.  

For one full year, I was in prison. Call it my immaculate incarceration — I was wholly innocent and sentenced by circumstance. Eventually, I was removed. My mother never saw me again.


I always thought my unique beginnings might someday serve a bigger purpose. I wasn’t sure what exactly, until 10 years ago when I began touring prisons to speak and teach, and to advocate for the advancement of the women I meet inside.

Recently, I was presenting a workshop on life skills to a group of 100-some women incarcerated at a Kentucky prison that houses maximum-, medium- and minimum-security inmates, and one on death row.

My talk was held in the prison chapel, and during the Q&A I stepped off the low-platform stage to feel closer to my audience. One woman raised her hand. “Do you remember what your prison mother looked like?”

No, I responded.

“But once I dreamed about her,” I said, and told the room what I’d recalled that next morning:

She was pulling two wooden handles of a gray wheelbarrow behind her, along a path, and I was at her back, I recounted. A man of no particular significance accompanied her. We weren’t in a garden where you typically think of wheelbarrows. Once in a while, she’d glance over her left shoulder, but I could never see her full face.

The details were so vivid when I woke up, I’d scrawled them on a piece of yellow, lined paper and titled it “The Wheelbarrow Dream.” Somewhere in my house, in a folder labeled “notes and ideas,” I still have the scrap of paper.

I looked out at the rows of folding chairs filled with khaki-clad inmates; everyone was beaming, almost in unison.

“I had that dream 20 years ago,” I told the prisoners, “but it’s never made sense to me.”

I was ready to take the next question, but the room went silent. So quiet, I could almost hear the inmates breathe.

Then, the woman who’d asked the question flashed a wide smile. I looked out at the rows of folding chairs filled with khaki-clad inmates; everyone was beaming, almost in unison.

Why are they all smiling at me? I wondered.

Then the woman explained: “When we’re sent to solitary confinement, we have to put our bedding and few belongings in one of the gray wheelbarrows that you see outside and pull it behind us across the yard to the isolation units.”

My knees wobbled. I braced against the pulpit behind me. Every inmate and staffer in the chapel stared up at me in shock.

“You must have been in the wheelbarrow as a baby when your birth mother was sent to solitary!” one woman called out.

A baby, blankets and belongings wouldn’t fit in anyone’s arms, would they? I was speechless.

Later, a staff member escorted me outside to the yard, and there on the concrete path — exactly as in my dream — rested a prison-issued wheelbarrow: It was gray, with long, wooden handles.

All these years … I’d held on to this fuzzy, foggy scrap of something. I never understood it until now.

As for my other memory, of my prison mom turning around to glance at me — the other moment locked away in my baby-mind and let loose in my dream — that’ll take another lifetime to metabolize.

But her peek back, I am sure, is that of a loving mother, checking to make sure her baby girl is safe — bouncing around in the back of a wheelbarrow, across a prison compound, and into the Hole.

Deborah Jiang-Stein is the author of Women Behind Bars, published in September by Shebooks, and the memoir Prison Baby. She is a national speaker and consultant, and founder of The unPrison Project, a nonprofit working to empower and inspire incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring. Twitter: @deborahdash

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