Survivor of sexual slavery and trafficking, Cyntoia Brown was just 16 years old when she was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a man for whom she claims paid her for sex. She survived multiple rapes and was forced into sex-slavery by a pimp called Cut Throat. Today, Cyntoia Brown-Long fights for justice and hopes that her newly published memoir “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System” will shed the light on flaws in the American justice system.
At the age of 16, Cyntoia Brown was convicted to life sentence for aggravated robbery and first degree murder of Johnny Allen, a 43 year old real estate agent from Nashville, Tennessee, who picked her up for sex on the street. Brown killed Allen with a pistol she took out of her purse thinking he was reaching for a gun. She then drove away in his pickup truck with his money and guns. She claimed before the Court that she was acting to protect herself, while the prosecution argued that it was her plan to rob Allen. The Tennessee court described her as a ‘’teen prostitute’’ and tried her as an adult. In 2006 she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison and was not eligible for a parole until 2055.
After ten years spent behind the bars, during which she obtained two degrees, became religious and got married to hip-hop singer Jamie Long, Cynotia appealed for clemency which was welcomed by the public and went viral amongst celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West, LeBron James and Rihanna who condemned Cyntoia’s life sentence over social media. Her case got attention with the rise of #MeToo movement and the use of hashtag #FreeCyntoia Brown by her supporters. At the same time, advocates for criminal justice reform portrayed Cyntoia’s case as an example of an unreasonable imprisonment of a juvenile who was a victim of sex trafficking.
During her appeals process, Brown took her chance to describe how at the time the incident took place she was in an abusive relationship with drug dealer and pimp named Cut Throat who forced her into prostitution. According to court documents, Cyntoia was placed into adoption as a child and ran away from her adoptive family when she was 16. She lived in a motel with a pimp who raped her multiple times and forced her into prostitution. Her life sentence was eventually commuted in August 2019 by the state governor Bill Haslam who bowed to pressure from celebrities, activists and law makers and stated that: “Yet imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life’’. Since her release, Cynotia has rewritten her memoirs that she started while she was still in prison.
In phone conversation with The Guardian reporter, Brown said the following about her book: ‘’I want to put a face to the justice system. I hope it will make people see things from my point of view and help them open their eyes about what really goes on behind the news stories and the court cases. A lot of people in the system get lost behind case numbers and some of their sentences are completely outrageous.’’
According to an advocacy group Sentencing Project, Cyntoia was one of 200 people who were sentenced as minors to life sentence in Tennessee. Her case sparked a debate in the US about child sex trafficking and flaws in the justice system that failed to provide support to youth at risk. Her case also inspired the reexamination of Tennessee’s juvenile sentencing laws that require for juveniles convicted of first degree murder to serve 51 years in prison before they have a chance to apply for a parole, as well as the introduction of state legislation that aim to protect minors who are victims of sex trafficking.
To fight back at the failed justice system, Cyntoia set up a non-profit organization and named it Foundation for Justice, Freedom and Mercy. Her goal is to speak up for all people who were sentenced as juveniles and are still imprisoned and to advocate for adoption of laws that would change practices on how juveniles are sentenced. ‘’It’s important for me that I speak in a way that gives them back their voices. All of a sudden, they’re known for the worst thing that they’ve ever done, and that seems to be all that anybody can see. The biggest issue right now with prison reform is convincing people that there needs to be reform. They think this whole ‘tough on crime’ thing is the way to go. But I see it different. What does it mean if we show mercy to people and cultivate that in the prison system instead?’’, Cyntoia said.
Currently, there are around 7.000 women serving a life sentence in the US, out whom many experienced sexual or physical trauma. Inspired by her though life experience, Cyntoia wants to help young women who have been victims of sexual assault not to end up in her place. In her own words, Cyntoia said: “Being young, caring and so impressionable can make us more vulnerable. And social media is so dangerous now in the way that it commodifies women and glamorizes breaking your back to appear beautiful to people and killing yourself for likes and follows. We have to have conversations about how that can make us vulnerable and how to protect ourselves from that as women through healthier thinking patterns.”