Last Thursday at Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago’s campus, author and activist for criminal justice reform, Cyntoia Brown-Long discussed her book, Free Cyntoia- My Search For Redemption in the American Prison System, with Dr. Tara Betts, author of Break the Habit and Arc and Hue. Brown-Long reflected on the impact of trafficking in Black communities in recognition of Human Trafficking Awareness Month. She also discussed what contributes to human trafficking, the injustices to women and children in the prison system, and her road to redemption.
Brown-Long was a victim of sex trafficking at the age of sixteen. She was in and out of the juvenile justice system, survived being raped multiple times, and was sold by her ex-boyfriend for drug money. During one of her encounters, she killed a man who had picked her up for sex. Despite being under eighteen at the time of the murder, Brown-Long was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. Two years later, she was sentenced to life in prison. Her case received national attention, and celebrities such as Rihanna, LeBron James, and Snoop Dogg advocated on her behalf. While in prison, Brown-Long earned an associate’s and bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University, a prominent Christian institution. In January 2019, after she had served fifteen years at the Tennessee Prison for Women, former governor Bill Haslam granted her full clemency.
Dr. Tara Betts opened the dialogue giving accolades to Brown-Long regarding how her book speaks to mass incarceration and other issues such as what being incarcerated does to young people and young women. Betts continued to talk about how Black women and girls are undervalued and how it is reflected when Black girls fall victim to sex trafficking. When Black girls and women go missing, no one seems to care. Cyntoia stated that since being released from prison, she feels there is finally a dialogue happening around trafficking and how young girls get caught up in it. “When I was younger, no one called it trafficking. They said that I was fast. They said that I was a promiscuous little girl. That is a problem, and it contributes to the trafficking of girls, falling into being vulnerable, and into being exploited.”
Brown-Long and Betts continued to discuss the issue of trafficking young girls, the people who are teaching young girls how to get attention, and the “grooming process” for sexual trafficking. Betts acknowledges in Brown-Long’s book, that it was not a man, but her friend Trina who makes that process happen. “I was taught by Trina that it’s ok for a man to have to pay for my conversation. It is ok to expect a man to pay to have sex with me because nobody should be broke having sex. She taught me this whole concept that my body is a commodity.” However, Brown-Long states that the grooming process starts very early. “It starts with the things that we see in society and the things that we see from men and what is permissive. It starts with what we see on social media. Young girls are seeing all of these things right now. We must start taking accountability and having these conversations.”
Brown-Long discussed her plans to launch her advocacy program, the GLITTER (Grassroots Learning Initiative on Teen Trafficking, Exploitation, and Rape) Project. The program would provide mentorships to at-risk girls and teach them how to spot red flags to help them avoid abusive situations. Brown-Long also stressed the importance of adults being present and available for every child, and to spot opportunities to intervene when a child appears to be having trouble. “Nobody is beyond repair. There were people there, even when I was not receptive. Just show up.”
-Kelly Washington, Contributing Writer