The following piece originally appeared on Beacon Broadside. Author and advocate Deborah Jiang Stein, through her own personal experience, brings to light a world so few of us know exists. Although the media–for better or worse–will focus on men in prison we hear very little about women serving time. It is a fast growing population, an invisible population, that is neglected not only in our public discourse about incarceration but in the prison world itself. Women in jail are horribly under-served, and that’s saying a lot since male inmates are equally under-served in terms of health care, mental health treatment, education and rehabilitative programs. And now Stein calls our attention to an even more invisible world, that of children born and raised in prison.
In her memoir Prison Baby, now available from Beacon Press, author Deborah Jiang Stein describes the pain and confusion she experiences upon finding out at the age of twelve that she was not only adopted, but had in fact been born in prison to a heroin addict, spending the first year of her life there. The shock, Stein writes, “sends me into a deep dive, an emotional lockdown behind a wall that imprisons me for nearly twenty years.” The rest of the book details Stein’s harrowing descent into depression, violence, drugs, and crime, and her torturous climb back out of that emotional “imprisonment” to a place of eventual redemption.
To help herself heal from the stigma of being born a heroin-addicted “prison baby,” Stein founded the unPrison Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to “empower, inspire, and cultivate critical thinking, life skills, self-reflection, and peer mentoring for women and girls in prison” while calling attention to the needs of women and children in prison.
Sadly, the needs are many. The fact sheet below outlines just a few unfortunate statistics about the skyrocketing population of women prisoners in the US, and the children that are too often caught in the middle.
13 Facts about Women in Prisons and the Children Left Behind
- Women are the fastest growing prison population, increasing 800%+ in the last ten years.
- The United States has the largest prison population in the world: with 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners.
- 2.3 million minor children, or 3% of all children in the US, have a parent in prison; most under age 10. This is larger than the city of San Francisco, than the population of Philadelphia, larger than the state of Delaware. Whereas ten years ago, 60,000 children has a parent in prison.
- 85% of women in prisons are mothers.
- The majority of incarcerated women are sentenced for nonviolent drug related crimes.
- The majority incarcerated women have a diagnosable mental health issue like depression and suicidal tendencies.
- Nearly all women in prisons have experienced abuse of one kind or another: physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional.
- 4-7% of women entering prison are pregnant.
- 85% of incarcerated women have had problems with substance abuse, alcoholism, or other addictions.
- The cost to incarcerate averages $24,000 – $47,000 per inmate per year, compared to the cost of a high-end treatment center which averages $6,400 for an intensive outpatient program, and $33,000 for inpatient drug and alcohol treatment.
- According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, about one baby born each hour is addicted to opiate drugs in the US.
- Infections related to a mother’s drug addiction, like HIV and hepatitis, can be transmitted to the fetus.
- 60-80% of heroin-exposed infants experience withdrawal symptoms, with a high mortality if the syndrome is severe and untreated.
Deborah Jiang Stein, author of Prison Baby, is a national speaker, writer, and founder of the unPrison Project, a nonprofit that serves to build public awareness about women and girls in prison and offers mentoring and life-skills programs for inmates. She lives in Minneapolis.