Deborah Jiang-Stein was 12 years old when she found the letter hidden beneath her adoptive mother’s silky slips and neatly-folded underwear in a perfumed dresser drawer.
Written on crisp white paper embossed with miniature roses, the message was short, but Deborah knew it was important. Why else would it be hidden?
“Can you please alter Deborah’s birth certificate from the Federal Women’s Prison in West Virginia, to Seattle,” her mother had written to their family’s attorney. “Nothing good will come from her knowing she lived in the prison before foster care or that her birth mother was a heroin addict. After all, she was born in our hearts here in Seattle, and if she finds all this out, she’ll ask questions about the prison and her foster homes before we adopted her.”
After reading the letter again and carefully replacing it in the drawer, Deborah walked into her parents’ bathroom and stared at her reflection in the mirror over the sink. “Born in prison? It can’t be true,” she thought. “When people find out, then what? Who loves anyone from prison?”
More than four decades later, Deborah finally knows the answer to that question: She does.
As CEO and founder of the unPrison Project, a nonprofit dedicated to building literacy, mentoring and life skills for women in prison and their children, the Minneapolis single mother of two has brought love and hope to more than 20,000 incarcerated women since 2012.
“This is my life now — I have probably been in more prisons than anybody,” Deborah, who has been invited to work with women in more than 30 prisons, tells PEOPLE.
“Eighty percent of incarcerated women have children, and it isn’t uncommon to find three generations of women in one prison,” she says. “We need to break that cycle. Directly working with these women, it’s my goal to change their lives and the lives of their children on the outside.”
For the first year of her life, Deborah was on the “inside,” after officials at the Appalachian prison where her birth mother was incarcerated allowed her to be fed and nurtured behind bars until she was placed in foster care.
Even when her mother was placed in solitary confinement off and on for 17 weeks, “they allowed me to go with her,” says Deborah, who learned about her birth mother’s story as an adult, after looking through more than 900 pages of prison files.
“I never told anybody about it for a long time,” she tells PEOPLE, “because I was ashamed. I thought that people might say that I was a piece of dirt and think that something was wrong with me.”
It was only when she turned her life around after years of drug addiction, violence and crime as a young woman that Deborah was able to embrace her past and realize that her story might help other women experiencing similar pain. She started visiting groups of women in prison and wrote a book about her unusual first year of life, Prison Baby.
“The first time I told my story, I looked up and of the 300 women in the audience, many were weeping,” she says. “I knew then that I had done the right thing. Women needed to hear this. I was on the right track.”
By sharing her story and teaching female inmates the importance of literacy and how to manage anger and seek forgiveness from their families, Deborah, who was recently selected as a L’Oréal Paris Woman of Worth, aims to give women a sense of purpose through the unPrison Project. This spring, she hopes to start a new program in Minnesota called Mama’s Bus, transporting children between ages 5 and 11 to state prisons to visit their mothers and read books together.
“When a woman goes to prison, her children are deeply affected because their main nurturer is gone,” Deborah tells PEOPLE. “Women will do anything to take their kids to see their dads, when they are in prison. But when the situation is reversed, fathers seldom take the kids to visit. I’ve seen research that shows even one visit from a child to a mother in prison can help reduce recidivism and give women hope of changing their lives.”
“Deborah’s work to positively impact the lives of incarcerated mothers and their children is valuable beyond measure,” says Raymond Dehn, a Minnesota state representative who is helping with legislation to introduce the Mama’s Bus program. “Her tireless work and innovative approach will help women to break the cycle that has resulted in their incarceration.”
Another fan of Deborah’s work is political activist and political organizer Gloria Steinem, who has teamed up with Deborah to speak about the mass imprisonment of women in the United States.
“Deborah has shown us that we have neighbors, and that our neighbors are wrongly shut off by walls and we’re supposed to pretend that they are not our neighbors,” Steinem tells PEOPLE. “But in fact, they are, and we can go past those walls and discover that the people who are there are very much the same as us.”
As a young woman, Deborah often wondered about her biological mother and was saddened to eventually learn that she had died years earlier of throat cancer. While doing research for her book, she learned that her mother had hoped to hire a detective to find the baby girl she’d named Madlyn Mary.
“I used to hate that I had prison roots,” she tells PEOPLE. “I kept hoping that the facts of my story would go away. But now, I’ve learned to hold that mother-daughter bond close to my heart. And if helps change someone else’s life, all the better.”