[Pnews] Cyntoia Brown Will Go Free in August, But There Are More Survivors Behind Bars Who Still Need Help
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 8 17:34:10 EST 2019
Cyntoia Brown Will Go Free in August, But There Are More Survivors
Behind Bars Who Still Need Help
*Jan 8, 2019, 4:22pm****Victoria Law
After 14 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
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.
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
<https://www.instagram.com/p/Bbwi26PjHf7/> and Kim Kardashian
widespread attention to Brown’s situation. Nearly 500,000 people signed
a petition urging Haslam
<https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/free-cyntoia-brown> 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 <https://ncadv.org/statistics>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
<https://kidsofincarceratedmoms.com/>, 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 <https://survivedandpunished.org/> and the
California Coalition for Women Prisoners <http://womenprisoners.org/>.
(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
<http://freethemny.com/index.html>, 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
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.,
<http://freethemny.com/stories.html#patrice-smith> 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
<https://www.leagle.com/decision/infdco20110218905>, “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.
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