Cyntoia Brown was a 16-year-old runaway when she killed a man who bought her for sex. She told police she acted out of self-defense, and that she was afraid for her life. But the young black teen was not believed. She was tried as an adult and sentenced to life behind bars.
In 2006, that was seen as justice in the eyes of the law.
But now after 15 years behind bars, she is finally going home. On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) granted Brown clemency, calling her sentence “too harsh” after national outrage about the case. She will be released in August, at the age of 31, after being incarcerated for almost half her life.
Brown is not an anomaly. There are countless other Cyntoia Browns in prison because of acts they took to survive, criminal justice reform advocates say.
And most of them have backstories just like hers.
In 2004, an estimated 62 percent of women in state prison reported a history of prior physical or sexual abuse before their incarceration. That statistic is likely on the conservative side. Another 2012 study of women in jail found that 86 percent reported being a victim of sexual violence and 77 percent reported a history of domestic violence before ending up behind bars.
The primary pathway for women into the criminal justice system is early and continued trauma, said Alyssa Benedict, a national prison reform expert.
“Cyntoia’s story highlights how young, poor girls and women who are surviving these unstable and oppressive situations in their communities are literally being punished for it,” she said. “They are surviving poverty, violence and trauma on a daily basis and our system has not been designed to see that or to respond to it in a meaningful way.”
Brown’s victory came after years of hard work by prison reform advocates in Tennessee and beyond. In 2017, her story caught the attention of celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West, who helped to push her case into national awareness.
“Brown is not an anomaly. There are countless other Cyntoia Browns in prison because of acts they took to survive, criminal justice reform advocates say.”
While women are incarcerated far less than men, they are currently the fastest-growing segment of the American prison population.
Most women in prison did not commit violent crimes to get there, but rather nonviolent offenses involving drugs, sex work and property crimes, such as shoplifting and fraud. Many reasons why women are locked up are directly connected to issues of mental health, poverty and addiction, Benedict said. Incarcerated women report high rates of mental illness and drug use.
“The behaviors that get them into the system tend to be geared towards survival,” she said.
For women with a history of abuse, incarceration can further victimize them, said Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University. Young women are extra vulnerable to sexual abuse by prison staff, she added.
Criminal justice reform advocates who are buoyed by the decision to free Brown are still hard at work for other women sharing her plight. In New York, advocates are pressing Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to use his clemency power to free women who are currently incarcerated for crimes related to their abuse.
“For every win where there is a collective sigh of relief, I’m still holding my breath for the women who have not received that same type of freedom from oppression,” Benedict said. “There are thousands and thousands of women alongside Cyntoia who are suffering right now unnecessarily.”
Brown was born to a teenage mother who struggled with drug and alcohol use. As a young child, she was adopted, but later ran away. At 16, she was living with a man who went by the name “Cut Throat,” who she said was sexually and physically abusive to her and forced her into prostitution. He told her “some people were born whores, and that I was one,” she later testified.
On Aug. 7, 2004, Johnny Allen, a real estate agent, solicited Brown for sex. He took her to his house, she said, and showed her some of the guns he owned. He started acting strangely and violently grabbed her, she added. Scared for her life, she later told the court, she took a gun out of her purse that Cut Throat had given her for protection and shot him.
Her case has some similarities to that of Bresha Meadows, a young girl in Ohio who fatally shot her father, who she said was abusive. She was charged with murder, and if tried as an adult, could have faced life in prison. After advocates organized around her case, she was offered a plea deal to avoid more time behind bars. She is now at home, free.
It is impossible to know for sure how many girls and women are incarcerated for acts they took to protect themselves from sexual or physical abuse, said Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, which is a resource center for abused women who are charged with crimes related to their victimization.
“Do I think there are a lot of them? Yes,” she said. “Do I know how many? No. The data is just not kept.”
Piper Kerman, the author of “Orange is the New Black,” which later became a hit show on Netflix, said that she was thrilled to hear that Brown was granted clemency.
“Women suffer in hierarchical, patriarchal systems and this is nowhere more obvious than in prisons,” she said. “The #metoo movement reveals just how widespread sexual abuse and assault really are; the circumstances of girls and women in the criminal punishment system put this into stark relief.”
Kerman said she believed there were thousands more women and girls like Brown in American prisons and jails.
“They need to see freedom too,” she said.