It’s not uncommon to face a lifetime in prison after a lifetime of sexual assault, as Cyntoia Brown-Long, an acclaimed author, speaker, and advocate for criminal justice reform and victims of sex trafficking, explains. Brown-Long visited Tufts’ Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life on March 5th as part of the renowned Distinguished Speaker Series. She tells the tale of what it means to be a black woman in American society, which often serves as a funnel into an unforgiving criminal justice system. Brown-Long grew up being taught that her body is inherently and solely an object of men’s pleasure; those around her, instead of intervening or blaming the adults for sexual coercion, viewed her as a prostitute rather than a sex trafficking victim. However, Brown-Long makes it clear that “there is no such thing as child prostitution; it’s called sexual exploitation.”
At the young age of 16, Brown-Long defended herself by killing a man who solicited her for sex; she was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. After receiving this soul-crushing news, she remarkably remained hopeful and said to herself, “I’m not done; I’m gonna keep on fighting.” She went on to receive two university degrees, get married, and deeply explore her faith, all within ten years of imprisonment. Additionally, she founded the GLITTER (Grassroots Learning Initiative on Teen Trafficking, Exploitation and Rape) Project, which serves as a source of guidance and support for imprisoned victims. That is to say, she lived a life that the systems and people around her told her could never be possible. This spirit of defiance and hope is what characterizes her work today, outside of prison after worldwide attention to her case thankfully resulted in her release.
Brown-Long explains how she never forgot about the other women she met in prison; the national and global awareness for her story also shines light on the all too similar cases of other imprisoned women. “What I and many of the women I was incarcerated with experienced was that we were there to be warehoused,” she explains, “and the rules changed every single day.” Brown-Long goes on to point out the lack of rehabilitation services, which were only rarely implemented to comply with the low standards of federal grants. The only way to increase your likelihood of leaving the prison system was to buy a ticket out because “it matters if you have the money to pay for justice.”
Despite the high prevalence of poor black and brown women being wrongfully stuck in the American criminal justice system, these situations cannot be normalized. Brown-Long’s story must be understood and respected on an individual-level, rather than clumped into a common narrative. Her memoir, Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System, highlights some of the details and events that define her experience. Brown-Long continues to go around the country telling her story, all in the hope of awakening the American people to the forever-entrapping hold of sex trafficking.