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Fifteen years after a judge sentenced a 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown to life in prison for first-degree murder — an event which the sex-trafficking victim says was self-defense — the now 31-year-old took her first steps of freedom. Her release, which happened overnight Tuesday, is being hailed as a victory by activists nationwide.
“I’m blessed to have a very supportive family and friends to support me in the days to come,” reads a statement from Brown obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle. “I thank Governor and First Lady Haslam for their vote of confidence in me and with the Lord’s help I will make them as well as the rest of my supporters proud.”
Brown was tried as an adult in 2006 and convicted of shooting a man who paid her for sex. At the time, the sex trafficking survivor was living with her 24-year-old boyfriend who she said sexually abused her and forced her into prostitution. Her harrowing story of generational violence against women laid bare the shortcomings of America’s criminal justice system, igniting a heated debate nationwide.
The battle ended in a victory earlier this year when Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency. Her hard-won freedom was the culmination of 10 years of advocacy, education and public outcry — and while her release is a triumphant moment for sex trafficking survivors, her fight is far from over.
"You just have to think about the fact that a 16-year-old who's never had a driver's license, never voted, never had a job would now at age 30 begin that walk outside the prison walls," Charles Bone, Brown’s attorney, told Boston NPR station WBUR after the former governor’s announcement.
Like over 600,000 of Americans released from prison every year, Brown’s conviction has the potential to limit her employment opportunities, housing assistance, access to public assistance and many more benefits that will help her successfully reintegrate into society.
In reality, her transition back to free society is just beginning. Here are the main challenges she may face in the upcoming months.
Housing & Employment
The foundation for beginning any successful life, no matter one’s circumstances, is a stable job and home. But for many formerly incarcerated people, these things are often out of reach, with both federal and state legislation allowing employers and landlords to discriminate those with past convictions.
“If you don't have the safety of a home if you don't have the security of a job, you become invisible,” Hedy Weinberg, ACLU Tennessee’s executive director, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Or rather than becoming invisible, there's a target where people are discriminating you because of your background.”
Federal regulations have allowed public housing authorities and landlords to run background checks on future tenants, and widely discriminate against formerly incarcerated individuals from the stable housing they need to get a job, get access to necessary health care and more. For this reason, people with criminal records are 10 times more likely to be homeless; for incarcerated women, that rate jumps to 13 times, according to Wanda Bertram from Prison Policy Initiative.
Meanwhile, unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated people are over 27 percent — a higher rate than the Great Depression. “For women, particularly black women those numbers are much more pronounced,” Bertram tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Many in criminal justice reform advocates attribute these startling numbers to discriminatory practices in the hiring process, including a box that requires job applicants to indicate whether they have a criminal record. For this reason, advocates and legislators have pushed “ban the box” legislation to delay background checks to give every American a fair chance at a job.
Correctional facilities dictate when inmates wake up, when they sleep, what they wear, when they shower and what they eat. After years of being deprived of the right to make these decisions, Weinberg says that having the basic right to vote is an integral part of re-entering civil society.
“Your vote is your voice,” Weinberg tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It's your ability to express yourself. When they get out, part of the full integration back into their communities is about being able to restore their right to vote.”
Prison Policy Initiative reports say that during the 2018 midterm elections, 4.7 million free Americans were ineligible to vote because of felony convictions because they lived in one of 34 states that prohibiting individuals on probation, parole, or who have completed their sentence from participating in the democratic process. Because of the startling racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this disenfranchisement largely impacts communities of color — a fact that was highlighted in Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial race against Brian Kemp in Georgia.
Weinberg says Tennessee is one of the worst states when it comes to reinstating voting rights to those who are formerly incarcerated. While it may not be the first thing that is top of mind for many who are starting over, criminal justice advocates say that it is a critical part of becoming a productive member of society.
“I think that in general, something that can be incredibly motivating and demoralizing is the fact that they are coming out of prison and they’re not full citizens,” Bertram tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The reason that formerly incarcerated people should be able to vote is the same reason that all of us should be able to vote. It’s to feel part of a community, and that we can all participate in the same things.”
Surviving Sexual Abuse
When 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen allegedly paid Brown for sex in 2004, she was living as a runaway with a 24-year-old pimp named “Kut Throat.” The sex trafficking survivor says he raped her and forced her into prostitution.
While Brown’s history of sexual abuse is harrowing, it is not uncommon. Bertram says that somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of those incarcerated in America have some history of sexual abuse and 50 to 60 percent have a history of child sexual abuse, depending on the studies.
“As any woman that has been sexually assaulted knows, that is an experience that follows you around for your whole life,” says Bertram. “But if you are a woman that is struggling with the challenges of re-entry like finding a job or finding a home, and you're fighting with this trauma, I can only imagine how hard that is.”
Derri Smith, the founder of an advocacy group for survivors of sex trafficking like Brown says that this trauma will be no easy obstacle to overcome.
“You have to be able to get out of this feeling of shame that traffickers just ingrain in their victims to the place of recognizing that they are victims,” Smith tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Smith was first introduced to Brown in 2017, who was curious about Smith’s work helping rehabilitate sex trafficking survivors. Smith has spoken to judges and legislators alike to advocate on behalf of Brown.
Smith also says Brown could be vulnerable to any number of triggers as she navigates life outside of prison.
“It could be the smell of a certain kind of food cooking, it can be a kind of cologne, it could be a certain song. It can be almost anything that was present during some traumatic moment,” Smith tells Yahoo. Beyond relearning how to retake control over their life, Smith says that Brown will simply learn how to trust again.
“Everyone that should have been there to protect you pretty much hasn't been. You have to learn who to trust just to get out of survival mode — doing whatever it takes to get through the next hour and the next day to get to a place where you can actually set goals and plans and have hope for a future that is different,” says Smith.
Re-Entry to Free Society
Despite the long journey ahead of her, Smith, Weinberg and other advocates say they believe Brown will be able to successfully re-enter to succeed in society.
During her time at the Tennessee Prison for Women, Brown earned her GED and even graduated with a Bachelor of Professional Studies with a major in Organizational Leadership from Lipscomb University. “The power of education to come in and completely overhaul your sense of self and view of the world is incredible,” reads a statement from Brown on the Lipscomb University website. Armed with an education and time to reflect, Cyntoia Brown began to help other women in the juvenile justice system like her and became a “model prisoner.”
Brown reached out to Smith about starting her own nonprofit to help young women in situations like her. And upon her release, Brown expressed her desire to “[use] my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation.”
Beyond the complete transformation that Brown has undergone, advocates say that she has the necessary financial resources and emotional support to heal and successfully re-enter society — resources that many released formerly incarcerated people don’t have.
A Cyntoia Brown “Second Chance Fund” was started to help Brown during this critical transitional period. The GoFund me has raised nearly 20,000 since Haslam announced that Brown would be granted clemency.
Smith tells Yahoo Lifestyle that Brown plans to stay with her family as she works to build a life outside the walls of the Tennessee Prison for Women. In addition to having a pro-bono attorney, a therapist has offered her services free of charge to help the sex-trafficking victim come to terms with her new life.
“The way she's used her time, she's light years different than she was as the 16-year-old traumatized girl young person,” says Smith. “She's focused, she's smart, she's met goals even under very challenging circumstances. So I have no reason to think that she won't succeed on the outside.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that Brown killed the man who forced her into prostitution. In reality, she says she acted in self-defense against a different man who had paid her for sex.
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