Cyntoia Brown-Long has a message for “fast” and “pretty” girls: Don’t let those words define you.
Starting at age 12, Brown-Long, now 31, frequently was told she was “fast,” a way of telling a girl she is “promiscuous, wanting attention, trying to be grown but in a sexual way,” she explained during a phone interview with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Growing up, she frequently heard how pretty she was and how she could use sex to get things from men.
“You kind of take that in,” Brown-Long said. “It starts becoming your truth, it sinks into you. It was manifesting itself.”
Brown-Long knows because she was that girl.
Believing that perverse kind of social programming made her vulnerable to being a teen sex trafficking victim and led to a fateful encounter with a 43-year-old Nashville real estate agent who solicted sex from her when she was 16. She fatally shot Johnny Mitchell Allen and was convicted of first-degree murder in 2004. After serving 15 years of a life sentence, Brown-Long is now free on parole after Gov. Bill Haslam commuted her sentence in January.
Brown-Long will appear at 6 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 20 , at New Direction Christian Church, 6120 Winchester Road, to talk about her coming-of-age memoir, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System” and be interviewed by the Rev. Stacy Spencer, senior pastor and president of MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope).
“After coming through the sex trade, going to prison and evolving spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, this is an amazing story of redemption,” Spencer said of Brown-Long, who was born to a teenage alcoholic mother. “There’s a lot that comes with growing up poor and black, and people need to know some of the traps …”
After celebrities like Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, Lebron James and Kim Kardashian helped her story go viral in 2017, Brown-Long’s case shed light on teen sex trafficking. But it also exposed the punitive nature of Tennessee’s juvenile justice system, particularly mandatory minimum sentences, introduced with the 1994 Clinton crime bill, said state Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis). The law was originally intended for adults, but Tennessee overcorrected, she said, and applied the draconian sentences to youth.
“She is not the same woman she was all those years ago,” Akbari said. “To not only get a college education and mentor others in similar situations, her work is a true example of what our criminal justice system should be — one where you can be redeemed and reformed.”
While Brown-Long might be free, 185 people sentenced to life in Tennessee’s prison system as juveniles are still stuck there, Akbari said.
“It has not been proven to be a deterrent from crime, and we should move forward,” said Akbari, who is supporting a coalition bill in the Tennessee Legislature to keep juveniles from spending the rest of their lives in prison, if they have met certain conditions. A parole board would have the final say, but for juveniles sentenced to more than 30 years, they would be eligible for parole after 20.
Akbari said she is sensitive to victims’ families: “I am not by any means saying the crimes committed are not horrific. I’m just saying 51 years for a child is not an appropriate response to the crimes.”
Brown-Long said she supports the bill because people sentenced to life as juveniles should have a chance to show they have been rehabilitated like she did. For example, while in prison, she earned a degree from Lipscomb University. Her capstone project was called GLITTER, Grassroots Learning Initiative on Teen Trafficking, Exploitation and Rape, which is where she really began to make the connection between the messages she received as a young girl and how that led to her being exploited by adults.
Brown-Long said she supports a greater embrace of restorative justice: “Something has happened; a balance has been disrupted. How can we find out why this happened? There need to be prisons, not abundant prisons. People don’t need to go there and stay forever for drug sentences or felony murder charges when they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Today, Brown-Long serves as a mentor at Nashville’s EPIC Girl. There, girls in detention centers and high schools talk about their experiences, healthy relationships and how to protect themselves emotionally, she said. She is trying to be for these girls the healthy resource she didn’t have because she felt like her mother wouldn’t understand.
Through Brown-Long’s travels to talk about her book, she has realized how much more society has to learn before real change can occur: For one thing, there is no such thing as a “teen prostitute,” a phrase she’s been hearing.
“You don’t have the capacity to consent at the age of 16 or the age of 15. How can you consent to something that is statutory rape?” she said. Besides, “your body is not a commodity. It’s your body. You can’t consider yourself as a good for trade. It’s worth so much more than that.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and public policy. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Community Change. Sign up for our newsletter.