Cyntoia Brown-Long was just 16 when she was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a man she claims bought her for sex. The homeless runaway had been in and out of the juvenile justice system, survived multiple rapes and assaults and was forced into sex slavery by her then-boyfriend, a pimp known as Kut Throat, who regularly sold her for drug money.
Yet few details of Brown-Long’s troubled childhood were heard by the Tennessee court in 2004, which instead repeatedly described her as a “teen prostitute” and tried her as an adult. Today, 15 years on and just months after her life sentence was commuted by the state governor, Brown-Long has rewritten the narrative behind her incarceration – and her past – in a memoir she began while still in prison.
“I want it to put a face to the justice system,” says Brown-Long by phone from Nashville of her book, Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System, published last week.
“I hope it will make people see things from my point of view and help them open their eyes about what really goes on behind the news stories and the court cases. A lot of people in the system get lost behind case numbers – and some of their sentences are completely outrageous.”
Brown-Long knows that her case was unique. After more than a decade in prison, where she would eventually obtain two university degrees, find God and get married (she tied the knot with Christian hip-hop artist Jamie Long over the phone while still incarcerated), she appealed for clemency. The petition went viral after celebrities including Rihanna, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian West took to social media to condemn her life sentence.
The outcry helped spark a national debate about child trafficking and the failure of the US juvenile justice system to identify and support at-risk youth. It also prompted Tennessee to re-examine its own unusually harsh juvenile sentencing laws, which require under-18s convicted of first-degree murder to face 51 years behind bars before a chance of parole. Before her petition for clemency was granted, Brown-Long would not have been eligible for parole until she was 69.
Now that she is free, Brown-Long is setting up a non-profit, the Foundation for Justice, Freedom and Mercy, to help speak on behalf of “all the other Cyntoias who are still locked up”. Her goal is to advocate for legislation that would change, in particular, how juveniles are sentenced.
“It’s important for me that I speak in a way that gives them back their voices. All of a sudden, they’re known for the worst thing that they’ve ever done – and that seems to be all that anybody can see,” she says.
“The biggest issue right now with prison reform is convincing people that there needs to be reform. They think this whole ‘tough on crime’ thing is the way to go. But I see it different. What does it mean if we show mercy to people and cultivate that in the prison system instead?”
Brown-Long goes into detail in her memoir about the circumstances leading up to her own incarceration: born to a mother who drank throughout her pregnancy; a childhood spent in and out of juvenile facilities; years racked by drug and sex abuse.
At 16, she met 24-year-old Garion McGlothen, who went by the name Kut Throat, with whom she was living in motels around Nashville and snorting cocaine every day. He would send her out to have sex with men and would beat and rape her if she didn’t come back with cash, she claims.
“He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody’d want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore,” Brown-Long said at a parole hearing.
It was within this context that she was picked up at a fast-food restaurant in August 2004 by 43-year-old estate agent Johnny Allen, who Brown-Long claims offered to buy her snacks and pay $150 (£117) for sex. Back at his house, Allen began showing her his gun collection, which made her fear for her life, Brown-Long says. She claims she later shot him in self-defence. However, police found Allen nude in bed with a gunshot wound to the back of his head, his hands underneath his head as if he were sleeping.
Police charged Brown-Long with first-degree murder and robbery – as evidence later showed that she stole his truck, wallet and guns – but Brown-Long has always maintained that she didn’t shoot him to rob him.
It was while studying for her degree in prison that Brown-Long came across a term she’d never heard of – sex trafficking – which made her rethink her own experiences.
“I thought to myself, why am I only just now finding out that there’s no such thing as a teen prostitute? Why are teenagers who are trafficked like [I was] being exploited and taken advantage of, but society has just been telling us we’re bad, that we’re promiscuous?
“That was when I really realised we need to start educating one another about what’s happening to young girls, not talking about waist trainers and contouring and how to be desirable to men. That was one of the direct reasons why I found myself in a hotel room with a man who trained me to do just that. It took me 10 years to come to grips with the fact I was actually a victim of trafficking.”
Brown-Long now spends her days doing community service and mentoring at-risk girls on the importance of boundaries and the real dangers of social media.
“I speak to them about what led up to me being in that [trafficking] situation and how it’s not about some guy picking you up off the street corner and holding a gun to your head and making you do certain things,” says Brown-Long.
“Being young, caring and so impressionable can make us more vulnerable. And social media is so dangerous now in the way that it commodifies women and glamorises breaking your back to appear beautiful to people and killing yourself for likes and follows. We have to have conversations about how that can make us vulnerable and how to protect ourselves from that as women through healthier thinking patterns.”
Brown-Long has publicly apologised since her release from prison to the family of the man she killed, and describes in her memoir the guilt she felt at not telling his mother she was sorry at the time – advice that she was given by her lawyer out of fear it would “tank her case”.
“I realised [then] how truly messed up the system was,” Brown-Long wrote.
“Don’t we want people to feel remorse, to swallow their pride and reach out to the person they hurt? There’s no room in the criminal justice system, not the way it’s set up today. I never got to apologise to my victim’s mother. She would die before I had the chance.”