After 15 years behind bars, Cyntoia Brown will soon be walking out of the prison gates.
In 2004, when Brown was 16, she had run away from home and was living with a man named Kut Throat in a Nashville motel. At his insistence, she engaged in street-based sex work, leading to her fateful encounter with 43-year-old Johnny Allen. After haggling with her over the price, Allen brought Brown back to his house where, she later told a judge, his behavior frightened her. When he seemed to reach for something underneath the bed, Brown believed he was reaching for a gun. She shot him with the gun she kept in her purse. She then left, taking Allen’s money and two of his guns; in court, prosecutors argued that Brown had gone to his house intending to rob him.
Two years later, she was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. She became one of more than 100 people in Tennessee sentenced to life in prison as teenagers—and one of countless women throughout the United States who has survived violence only to be sentenced to decades, if not death, behind bars.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that life without parole for those convicted as juveniles is unconstitutional, Tennessee did not revise its laws to allow people sentenced to life as juveniles to apply for resentencing. Instead, it allows for the possibility of parole for everyone sentenced to life in prison only after they have served 51 years. In December 2018, Tennessee’s Supreme Court ruled that the same laws apply to Brown, meaning she would not have a second chance until at least age 67.
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But on Monday, January 7, outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam (R) commuted Brown’s sentence to time served. Brown, now 30, will be eligible for release August 7. She will remain on parole for the next ten years.
Brown isn’t alone. Hundreds—if not thousands—of violence survivors remain behind bars. Grassroots groups across the country have been organizing for years to get them free.
Clemency from governors can take two forms. The first, a pardon, is a total expungement of a person’s conviction that is usually granted after they have served their sentence. The other is a commutation, or a shortening of an incarcerated person’s prison sentence. That’s what Haslam issued for Brown on Monday.
Commuting Brown’s sentence wasn’t simply a good deed by an outgoing governor. It was the result of more than ten years of organizing and public pressure. In 2011, Brown’s story caught the attention of filmmakers who produced a documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. Celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian drew widespread attention to Brown’s situation. Nearly 500,000 people signed a petition urging Haslam to commute her sentence. Thousands of people called and wrote to the governor and participated in call-ins to their elected officials demanding commutation.
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.”
In California, advocates say at least half of the 59 commutations of people in women’s prisons went to abuse survivors, thanks to organizing by Survived and Punished and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. (Outgoing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown issued a total of 284 commutations before leaving office.)
“It has been such a rare and unique political moment that we’ve arrived to thanks to the years of people inside [jails and prisons] organizing and the organizing across the walls—with Governor Brown actually acknowledging the violence that survivors endured in his press releases and using his power to commute their sentences,” Adrienne Roberts of the California Coalition told Rewire.News via email.
In New York, advocates launched #FreeThemNY, a clemency campaign for abuse survivors incarcerated in New York state. During this past election season, organizers have rallied outside Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fundraising events, office, and home. Among the survivors who #FreeThemNY has highlighted is 36-year-old Patrice Smith, whose story bears striking similarities to that of Brown.
Smith was 15 years old when she met 70-year-old Robert Robinson Jr., a bishop who offered her money in exchange for sex. On at least one occasion, she says, he forced her to have sex after she refused. When she was 16, she and another friend were at Robinson’s house when he demanded that she have sex with him. She refused; she says he hit her and threatened to get his gun, a gun that he had shown her in the past. Their argument became physical and, during the scuffle, Smith fatally wrapped a phone cord around Robinson’s neck. Later, she testified that she did not mean to wrap the cord around his neck and that she was thinking, “I don’t want my life to be taken just because I didn’t want to have sex with this man.”
Smith was convicted and, despite her age, sentenced to 25 years to life. She has spent the past 20 years in prison, obtaining her GED and bachelor’s degree and participating in numerous prison programs. She has applied for clemency and wrote in an open letter to Cuomo, “For 20 years I have been viewed through the lens of the law and lens of propriety because it was unbelievable that a man of God would abuse a child.” She reminded the governor of her age at the time and asked him “to imagine being 16, with limited recourse, lacking the wherewithal to give a voice to my shame, so I accepted silence. As a survivor, I have to justify the irrational, overwhelming need of love, acceptance and the fear of abandonment.”
Cuomo issued seven commutations on New Year’s Eve. None were for abuse survivors or people in women’s prisons. Smith is still waiting—and hoping for a second chance.
“There are thousands of Cyntoias in state prisons across the country and hundreds in New York state prisons,” said Allison Brown of #FreeThemNY. “We are profoundly disappointed that Cuomo has failed to grant a single one of them clemency in 2018. We intend to keep the pressure on Cuomo and the state until they do the right thing.”
In Tennessee, Free Hearts will be starting the Love and Justice Project to continue supporting and advocating for the freedom of incarcerated survivors such as Cyntoia across the state.
“We will be continuing our work to build a movement here to end the criminalization of survivors and challenge the criminal legal system as the solution to ending gender violence,” Chambers said.