Excerpted from “Prison Baby: A Memior,” author Deborah Jiang Stein, © Beacon Press, reprinted with permission.
“OUR MOST FAMOUS HISTORICAL INMATES INCLUDE Billie Holiday, Tokyo Rose, Squeaky Fromme,” the officer notes as we cross the prison complex. She launches into an impromptu history of the place. “No metal fences surround the camp, just a hundred rural acres, a natural barrier of rolling West Virginia hills.”
Come back, I tell myself. I can’t ground my body in the present.
Come back. I need to focus. I want—need—to savor my return home, remember every second of what took a lifetime to find.
“Are you okay?” the officer asks.
I shut my eyelids for a minute, desperate to shake off the sensation and keep this weirdness to myself. But the time distortion wins. We’re now in an empty basement room in another building the same compact size as the Riverview Gas Station down the hill. Déjà vu flashes through me, along with a dizzy spell, and sensory memory kicks in like a full orchestra inside. About to pass out, I press the palm of my hand against the door to brace myself. Faded-green paint chips tumble to the ground from the pressure of my hand.
“This paint,” the officer says, “it’s the same since your birth here, never painted, same since the prison first opened. This is where we used to release sheets of paper for letters and envelopes to prisoners.
Your mom must’ve carried you in here every day.”
The air tastes like warmed mold. I hang on to the officer’s words, inhale the prison, this landscape I’d shared with my mom, a bond of perfection I’d created in my mind. But for how long?
My breath races faster. Don’t let her see. I try to hide the heave of my shoulders so the officer won’t notice them rise and fall. I don’t want anyone to witness my feelings yet, for sure not a stranger, an authority figure. Fast-paced everything: heartbeatbreathvision, one blur of sensation. I’m like a trapped animal set free.
“Up there,” the officer points to the ceiling, its faded white paint now chipped and speckled. “That’s the chapel. Service every Wednesday and Sunday. You might have attended church with your mom. They baptized you here I’m sure.”
Baptized? I was raised in a Jewish family and I’ve been baptized! Jewish mysticism speaks about two powerful muscles in the brain: memory and imagination. But what about the pocket in between, where memory reaches out to imagination but can’t quite connect? All my life I stored my prison-birth secret in this pocket to hide it from myself and from the world.
The dank, chipped-paint basement beneath the prison chapel pitches me into this brain space. Silence all around except in my head, I’m transplanted back in time, to a Baptist service and the reverberations of a chapel full of women. Hands clap, women sing spirituals, feet stomp. I’m desperate—is this my imagination or a memory revived?
We cross the compound again, towards another corner of the prison. Then something doesn’t fit. What about all those times they sent her to solitary confinement? My prison mom couldn’t have kept me with her in the Hole. Where did I go? Who took care of me in those weeks and weeks and weeks, on the many occasions she sat in isolation?
I ask the officer, and she answers almost before I finish my sentence, as if I’d just asked her the time of day: “Oh, you went to the Hole with her.”
What on earth does a baby do in the Hole week after week? Isolated in what some call the Box or the Pit, secluded behind four walls. What does anyone do but flip out in the Hole, where psychologists research the breaking point of our human mind, where incarcerated women and men go mad because sensory deprivation can drive a human being to chew the veins in her wrist in a suicide attempt to end the insanity.
Some inmates in the Hole holler and scream all day and night. Others throw feces out their cell doors. Some pump out a thousand push-ups a day to drive themselves to a different breaking point. Others rock back and forth under a blanket for a year or more in this space with just enough room for a bed, sink, and toilet, and no television or radio, just the scream of your own voice and the open-and-slam of doors and the cry of insanity from others in the same isolation.
Doubt and distress and torment live in the Hole, along with terror, frustration, boredom, rage, and depression. For my prison mom and me, though, all I imagine is an oasis of peace. Maybe she had a box of Kotex, some paper and a pen, maybe a Bible. The guards must have brought diapers and blankets for me. I suppose I was her angel of glory in a dreary place where she created a sanctuary out of chaos, where we cuddled and she could count my toes and sing silly songs. Maybe going crazy was not an option for her with me at her side. Maybe the isolation was worth it for her.
I still can’t metabolize the fact: I lived in the Hole at a time when most infants rock in cradles, visit grandma, bathe in a sink, and get diapered with baby powder. A time in a baby’s life for the sweet sound of “Awww” instead of the clang of a food slot and the yell “Chow time!” Me with my prison mom in the Hole, just the two of us with everyone on the outside watching our outlines. How bad can this be, though? But instead of fear, I force myself to lean into the unanswered questions of what I can’t reconcile. I use this newfound discipline so the uncertainty won’t eat me alive and drive me crazy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Deborah Jiang-Stein Deborah Jiang-Stein is a national speaker, writer, and founder of the unPrison Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that serves to build public awareness about women and girls in prison and offers mentoring and life-skills programs for inmates.