Cyntoia Brown, an African-American woman who was incarcerated for 15 years for the “crime” of self-defense, was finally freed Aug. 7 from a Nashville, Tenn., prison. Brown, now 31 years old, was granted clemency on Jan. 7 by former Gov. Bill Haslam.
A Workers World article from Jan. 15 explains Brown’s case: “Brown was sentenced for killing a white male sexual predator who solicited her for sex when she was just 16 years old. As a child, Brown suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and homelessness, and as a juvenile, she was a victim of multiple rapes. Her case has helped shine a bright spotlight on global sex trafficking, especially that targeting young people of color regardless of gender, gender expression or national borders.”
The article also raised the question of why Brown had to spend an extra nine months in prison after clemency was granted. Even with her release, Brown will have to spend the next 10 years on parole. This means that if the state — the judicial system — deems that Brown violates the conditions of her parole, she could return to prison to serve more of her original outrageous 51-year sentence that began with her arrest in 2004.
Brown’s tragic case is not isolated in a society riddled with racism, misogyny and lesbian, gay, bi and trans oppression. If it weren’t for the mass support Brown received from prominent figures like popular singer and actor Rihanna and publicity on Facebook and Twitter at the hashtags #MeToo Movement and #Free CyntoiaBrown, she would just be one of the countless, faceless women and gender-oppressed people who are languishing in prison for defending themselves against racist and sexist abuse and assault.
All too often capitalist laws protect the rapists and not the survivors, especially those who dare to speak up and speak out, not only for themselves but for others. Just ask the hundreds of teenage gymnasts whose abuser, Dr. Larry Nassar, was protected for decades by his employers, Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, until he was convicted of seven counts of criminal sexual assault against minors in February 2018.
In 1974, Joann Little, a Black woman, killed the white jailer who attempted to rape her in Washington, N.C. She was the first woman ever to be acquitted in a murder trial on the grounds of self-defense against sexual violence. What was decisive in achieving this historic legal decision on Aug. 22, 1975, was a national and international “Free Joann Little” campaign, which included countless protests.
Workers World Party participated in that struggle.
Cyntoia Brown received her General Education Diploma and a bachelor’s degree while in prison. She also mentored at-risk youth. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system stole 15 years of her life. In the state of Tennessee alone, there are over 180 prisoners whose life sentences began when they were convicted as juveniles. This is a crime against humanity. It helps to expose that prisons and detention centers for migrants are concentration camps for the poor and oppressed.
The National Women’s Law Center echoed the sentiments of many on their Aug. 6 Twitter feed: “We’re glad Cyntoia has finally been freed — but we must not forget that she never should have been in prison in the first place. We must continue to seek justice for survivors like her.”