Cyntoia Brown shot and killed a john, Johnny Allen, who picked her up in 2004 when she was 16. Cyntoia was sentenced to life in prison. No one denies she did this. Even Ms. Brown, now 30, has never denied that she killed Mr. Allen. However, through the lens of the #MeToo, #TimesUp movement, does this grace extend to young women in her position?
On May 23, the Republican governor of the great state of Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam, will be reviewing her application for clemency. This year, 2018, is his last year in office and, to date, he has not granted any motions or applications for clemency. Although, according to his spokesperson Jennifer Donnals, “The governor will thoughtfully review any clemency application and recommendation from the Board of Parole.” The push for clemency and even a pardon have come from the state level as well as the likes of Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West and LeBron James. Her most powerful and most supportive ally is (R)-State Representative Jeremy Faison. His reason for his support lies in Ms. Brown’s age at the time of the crime, as well as the law which was not in place when she was tried as an adult.
State Representative Faison says it would have been more difficult for her to be tried as an adult under the trafficking laws and laws governing juvenile offenders — those laws are now in place in Tennessee. In the thirteen years she has been incarcerated, Cyntoia Brown has earned a college degree and is a model inmate. But here lies the rub. The prosecuting attorney for the Cyntoia Brown case, Jeff Burks, believes she is right where she needs to be.
With this said, black women once in the clutches of the mighty, pseudo-righteous criminal justice system or the prison industrial complex rarely see the chance for true rehabilitation. Cyntoia had been seen by forensic psychologists, had run away from her foster family, and was found by a Nashville pimp named “Kut Throat” who raped, abused her, and ultimately set her on a path to meet Johnny Allen. The luxury of sympathy as it relates to psychiatric/psychosocial diagnosis is not given to black women. It is not afforded to us because that would decriminalize blackness and make womanhood across the board valuable. It would destabilize white supremacy, and South of the Mason-Dixon line we can’t have that, now can we?
However, perhaps there is hope! The premise of #MeToo is to bring attention to sexual assault, the nature of secrecy when it comes to sexual assault, and that trauma’s effect on women. Often there is this elitism that follows women who have suffered sexual trauma. It is a sort of cognitive dissonance which renders women who have been victims of sex trafficking or prostitution left in this position of “If she hadn’t been out there on purpose this wouldn’t have happened to her.” This is the same offensive statement that is thrown at women who were raped. It doesn’t make sense!
In this mire, we have the Cyntoia Browns of the nation. The girls caught between hard and impossible who by learning from the trauma around them, react in ways to ensure self-preservation. The prison industrial complex is like a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos. It wants everyone incarcerated. This complex takes delight in devouring the young and black. Especially, the young, black and female.
Having a Republican governor looking over a case of a young black woman who was involved in sex trafficking, forced to be a prostitute, repeatedly raped and abused by her trafficker/pimp, who killed a white man in Tennessee — and her supporters want her to be granted clemency or a pardon? I am not the most hopeful — especially when the Republican Party is ignorant of women being capable of making sentient decisions about their own bodies, careers, and sexual health.
Cyntoia Brown is good for business. She serves as martyr and mamie for the state of Tennessee Department of Corrections. Justice would be to free her, to see her situation for what it is under the current law, and allow her a life she is still young enough to build. By the end of the month, we will know if Cyntoia can start over as this premise of justice and rehabilitation are supposed to co-exist. After serving thirteen years of a life sentence, she may be able to start over again.
As thrilling as that possibility is, I am not holding my breath.