Search
  • Olivia Harden

Cyntoia Brown's story should not be turned into inspirational porn


Today is the day that Cyntoia Brown was released from prison and I have... frankly a lot of feelings surrounding her release. On January 7, 2019, the then-governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, granted her clemency after she served 15 of the 51+ years of her sentence. Why was she jailed in the first place? For killing a man who attempted her rape her after she was sold for sex by her pimp.


She was only 16 years old.

Of course, I am happy about her release. What a tragedy — to be sold into sex, forced to defend yourself against sexual assault and murder, only then to be thrown into prison. Cyntoia Brown entered the system in her teens and was expected to serve out her sentence until she was in her sixties. However, there are many factors about the way that the news cycle has covered her release that have been unsettling for me.


Many news stories have phrased Cyntoia's story as the dream happy ending. Cyntoia was a "model prisoner." She received her bachelor's degree. She counseled youth. She did all these amazing things while she was locked behind bars, and now out in the real world, she is grateful fur her release. And that's great and all, but the news cycle has missed critical parts of this story that should be talked about.


For one, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, and other celebrities are not the only ones who have been calling for her release. The documentary about her story was released in 2011. It wasn't until 2012 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violate Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. Cyntoia Brown was eligible for parole. However, it was at this point that her lawyers began to push to bring new evidence to life about her case, and started advocating for her release. And before the governor made the decision to grant her clemency, only 2 out of 6 members of the state parole board thought she should be released.


We can't erase how long and grueling this process has been for Cyntoia. She wasn't released because of a hashtag. She was released because of an outcry — an outcry from her lawyer, her advocates and yes, celebrities too. But the news doesn't reflect that people have worked towards her release for years, and years and years.


We can celebrate Cyntoia's accomplishments, but we must also shame the criminal justice system in the process. Statistics show that 1 out of every 25 prisoners on death row is not guilty. The United States has the highest number of prisoners in the world. Over 2.3 million people are behind bars, many of them in for-profit prisons whose owners are being paid for how many beds are filled. Some statistics go as high as 4% of those incarcerated individuals are not guilty. Even if the number of wrongly convicted prisoners is at 1%, that means 23000 individuals who sit in prison are not guilty. And the average number of years that those who are exonerated serve before being released is 9 years.

They are convicted because of coerced testimony, fabricated or bad evidence, misconduct of course, or they plead out to minimize time served. It is a travesty.

But these statistics are not mentioned. Instead, we are expected to be inspired by Cyntoia's perseverance, even though she should have never entered the prison system in the first place. The coverage of her story is weak because it doesn't open up the conversation about the bigger picture. 1.5% of juveniles in the criminal justice system are tried as adults. And juveniles in the system are more likely to be harassed and sexually abused because of the power dynamics between an adult and a child — a child criminal and an adult corrections officer.


Not every prisoner has access to schools or other ways to benefit themselves educationally, as many of those programs no longer exist. It is okay to celebrate Cyntoia's accomplishments, but we should not turn her story into inspirational porn about how justice has finally been served, nor about how prison can make you a "better person." Perhaps instead, we focus on the tragedy that the system failed her and countless others.

©2019 by Olivia Harden. Proudly created with Wix.com