After 15 years of incarceration for defending her life, Cyntoia Brown will finally be released. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam commuted her sentence following ongoing public support for her freedom. She will be eligible for release on August 7, 2019, and she’ll be on parole for ten years. Below is a collection of interviews and analyses about Brown’s fight for freedom and the struggle that remains for thousands of incarcerated survivors.
Cyntoia Brown Will Go Free in August, But There Are More Survivors Behind Bars Who Still Need Help
Victoria Law, Rewire News:
Tennessee advocates, including formerly incarcerated women, are celebrating Brown’s commutation. But they also told Rewire.News that they must continue fighting for other incarcerated survivors, whose names and stories often remain unknown. No one has tracked how many total survivors are incarcerated for self-defense or for acts related to their abuse. What is known is that approximately 33 percent of women have experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. That rate more than doubles to 77 percent among incarcerated women.
“A lot of hard work and years of organizing helped win clemency for Cyntoia and that should be lifted up and celebrated,” said Alex Chambers, an abuse survivor and an advocate with Free Hearts, a Nashville-based organization that works with incarcerated mothers. “But we still have a long way to go in Tennessee to make lasting change and win freedom for all criminalized survivors—there are countless incarcerated survivors whose names and stories are not publicly known and whose situations remain unchanged. We need to connect cases that have received attention to the larger issue of the criminalization of survivors, especially Black women and girls, and we need to actively counter narratives that exceptionalize some victims with the effect of blaming others and rendering them unworthy of care and support instead of punishment.”
There Are Thousands of Cyntoia Browns: Mariame Kaba on Criminalization of Sexual Violence Survivors
MARIAME KABA (Survived & Punished): I think some things that people probably know intuitively is that black children don’t get to be children. There’s a kind of adultification of children, particularly black children and children of color. So, Cyntoia, at 16, wasn’t seen as a young person; she was seen as an adult already, basically. And they put her on trial as an adult.
She ended up getting convicted, and she ended up getting convicted. Her sentence was life in prison. So you could imagine the shock to the system of somebody who has basically been sexually coerced her entire life, who was a runaway, so she was already precarious, defended herself against somebody who basically, if nothing else, was doing statutory rape. He was 43; she was 16 years old. And she ends up in a situation where she has got to figure out if she’s going to, you know, take—potentially put herself at risk of dying or if she’s going to take action. She chooses to take action. She’s punished for it. So, she’s punished, basically, for survival.
Cyntoia Brown, Bresha Meadows, and How the ‘Criminal Legal System Disappears Survivors’
Esther Wang, Jezebel:
Why is it so challenging, despite growing outrage, to free women and others survivors who have been imprisoned, like Cyntoia Brown? What are some of the long-standing structural issues at work here?
COLBY LENZ (Survived & Punished): Part of the problem is that I do see is the criminal legal system disappears survivors, so then the work that has to be done to force this issue into the public eye is really hard work. It’s not just that people are disappeared into these institutions with very little hope of ever gaining freedom or ever getting their story out, but it’s also that they’re disappeared in terms of resources, legal resources, anti-violence organizations.
So, these stories that come out into the public eye, come out because of organizing and because of the continued survival encouraged of those survivors who are also willing to have their stories out. But there are thousands and thousands and thousands more who don’t reach the public eye, and then there are so few resources to actually fight for their freedom. When we have this very powerful and important movement with Me Too and Times Up, the time has to be up on criminalized survival. That money, should be funneled into amazing legal resources.
When survivors are disappeared into these prisons, and I say prisons and include jails and detention centers, then we have no resources to fight for their freedom, for the most part. Then, also those fight post-convictions fights from the courts and as you can see, with Cyntoia and others, through these executive clemency kind of processes, are so challenging. Part of the other problem, from the beginning, is the criminal legal system. We see that it takes on the role of the batterer when these prosecutors and judges and so on prosecute and convict survivors. So they take on this role and then that battering is backed up by the state and the presumption is that it’s about justice and safety but in fact, the state is continuing to batter survivors and disappear them.
Cyntoia Brown Will Go Free. What About The Countless Others Just Like Her?
Melissa Jeltsen, Huffington Post:
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.”
Analysis: Cyntoia Brown, R Kelly and the refusal to recognize black and brown female victims
Cara Kelly, USA Today:
Biases against women who take defensive action are ingrained in the American legal system and long-standing gender norms, [said Sandra Morgan, director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University.]
That’s where Marissa Alexander found herself in 2010 after firing a warning shot during an attack by her estranged husband in which she says she feared for her life. Though Alexander had a restraining order against her husband at the time, and her shot caused no injuries, Alexander was arrested.
“It was a shock to me,” Alexander said. “I didn’t think I would get arrested that day. I don’t believe that what I did was a crime, so I was really shocked.”
Alexander, who lived in Florida, was denied “Stand Your Ground” immunity from prosecution. Her case garnered national attention as it played out in conjunction with that of George Zimmerman, who was tried and cleared in 2012 in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s defense lawyers argued he shot in self-defense, and the “Stand Your Ground” law played a part in the way the police approached the initial investigation.
Alexander was found guilty of three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and received a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. She successfully appealed her conviction in 2013 and in 2014 took a plea deal for time served plus 65 days in prison and two years probation.
Alexander says that from her initial arrest, despite her husband’s documented history of domestic violence, she doesn’t believe she was perceived as a victim of domestic abuse.
“I really feel like people didn’t feel like as a black woman I had the right to defend myself,” Alexander said. “In my experience, it’s the perception that especially being a black woman, that we’re aggressive and that we’re angry.”
Alisa Bierria, [Survived & Punished member and] an assistant professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside, says the prosecutor in Alexander’s case made it clear that she viewed Alexander as angry rather than fearful, and that impacted the decision on her “Stand Your Ground” defense.
“Black women in this country have never been allowed the full spectrum of human emotions and human identity, and that includes their access to the identity of survivor,” says Bierria.
Clemency for Cyntoia Brown
Mary Harris, Slate:
Advocate Mariame Kaba explains why the Cyntoia Brown story is compelling, complicated, and deeply frustrating—why it’s wrong to portray Cyntoia Brown as a child, why Brown’s story is deeply familiar to black women in America, and why Kaba considers Brown’s crime a radical act of “self-love.”
Women behind bars: The punishment is the crime
Sasha Murphy, Liberation:
In a recent report, the Prison Policy Initiative documented 219,000 women currently incarcerated: 89,000 in local jails, 99,000 in state prisons, 16,000 in federal prisons, 7,300 in youth correctional facilities, a whopping 7,000 in immigrant detention centers, and 700 in Indian county jails.
The number jumps even more when considering the full range of correctional control over women. More than a million women are on probation and parole.
Nearly 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women are in the United States, while only 4 percent of the world’s women live here. In this country, 133 are behind bars for every 100,000 women. … In Tennessee, in the heartland of so-called “land of the free” where Cyntoia Brown is locked up, the rate is 209 per 100,000.