Imagine what’s in my head right now, that I came into this world in a 4 x 6 prison cell and the road from that West Virginia prison led me here — standing before you in the Pierre Hotel as one of L’Oréal Paris’ Women of Worth.

Nothing could be farther from that prison cell where I lived my first twelve months, and from the prisons where I work. What a privilege to be here.

Thank you L’Oréal Paris for helping draw attention to the one million women in our criminal justice system across the country — one million women in prison and in the court system. These women are worthy of a better future just as was my birthmother who spent most of her life with one prison sentence after another, in and out of prison. Like most every incarcerated woman, she would have been better served by treatment for addiction and mental health services.

Thank you for this honor that amplifies a cause close to my heart. This means we will reach more incarcerated women across the country. Without this grant and funding from L’Oréal, we would not be able to fulfill several of our programs. One of our newest initiatives is reading glasses for women in prison.

Earlier this year when I was in a prison speaking to a gym full of 300 women, a woman passed a pair of broken reading glasses to the woman next to her. The glasses were duct-taped together. One side of the glasses was snapped off. This one pair of shattered glasses passed from one woman to the next so they could see.

How can we expect women who are marginalized and isolated to increase their level of education — to say nothing about self-esteem — if they can’t see the page in a book?

When I left the prison that day, I met with a private donor who stepped up and had 10,000 pairs of reading glasses manufactured specifically without wire for us to bring into prisons.

These glasses sit in our warehouse storage because we couldn’t cover the freight costs to ship them around the country into prisons. Now with the help of this funding from L’Oréal, we can deliver these glasses into more prisons. We will be able to give new vision for incarcerated women. They’ll also be able to read with their children on visiting day, impacting the future of their children with mother-child bonding and building literacy.

I am filled with gratitude tonight. It’s a privilege to lead the unPrison Project in service. Tonight I accept this honor from L’Oréal on behalf of the women we serve in prisons.

Deborah Jiang-Stein, author of the memoir, Prison Baby, is a national speaker and founder of the
unPrison Project , a nonprofit working to empower and inspire incarcerated women and girls with tools for life skills and mentoring. For more than 10 years, Deborah has championed support for people in need of life skills development along with building wellness, purpose, and freedom.

Born to a heroin-addicted mother in an Appalachian prison, Deborah spent the first year of her life in incarceration, before placement in the foster care system and then adoption. After overcoming the harsh realities of her past – with recovery from addictions of her own – Deborah set out to empower and inspire incarcerated women with the hope and tools for well-being they would need to succeed in life after prison.