The long-awaited day has finally come for 31-year-old Cyntoia Brown, who has been released on parole from the Tennessee Prison for Women after serving 15 years of what could have been a lifetime sentence. At the age of 16, Brown was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery of an armed man who had solicited her for sex; she described her actions as a matter of self-defense, traumatized as a victim of sex trafficking. Brown has expressed her wish to be left in peace today and has no plans to include the public or the media in her first day ever as a free woman.
Prior to her release, she did issue a statement from prison, thanking God as well as her many supporters. “I’m blessed to have a very supportive family and friends to support me in the days to come. I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation,” she wrote. Her lead attorney Charles Bone also shared his thoughts leading up to this day. “Every person who was asked to participate in any effort on her behalf agreed to assist on a pro bono basis because of her compelling story and the commitment to justice,” he wrote. “When her story is told in much greater detail, the words which describe her success include redemption, education, rehabilitation, salvation, mercy and freedom.” We’ll get to learn more about her journey in a forthcoming Netflix documentary.
Brown was granted clemency by outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam in January, shortly before the expiration of his term. “Transformation should be accompanied by hope,” Haslam said upon announcing his decision. He had considered the incredible strength that Brown had embraced while incarcerated, not only in the path she set out for herself but also the support she gave to her fellow inmates. As a woman whose life had been turned upside down at such a young age, Brown excelled in her pursuit of education; this past spring, she graduated from her studies with a Bachelor’s degree.
Brown will be free, but she faces a decade of parole in which she has the daunting task of staying out of prison. According to figures cited by The Tennessean, recidivism is not uncommon. Nearly half of the state’s inmates end up back behind bars within three years of their release; consider the fact that ex-convicts face a significant challenge in finding an employer who will hire them. For victims of sex trafficking, there’s also the issue of managing the trauma from their experiences.
Ashlee Sellars, who had become acquainted with Brown as she served her own sentence, told the publication that we truly cannot underestimate how difficult it is for inmates to transition back into society. There’s no way for us to wrap our heads around what it’s like to have grown up behind bars. Brown, herself, had spent about half of her entire life in a maximum-security prison. “I feel, and I know Cyntoia would feel, too, that she’s an example, not an exception,” Sellars explained. “There are children crying in jail right now, children who may die in jail before they would get out.”