Seven days into 2019, Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency from her life sentence.
On Wednesday, she is coming home. A then-16-year-old victim of sex trafficking, Brown, now 31, served 15 years for killing a man who paid to have sex with her. Petitions supporting her release circulated the internet for the better part of 2018. Celebrities such as Rihanna, Ashley Judd, and Kim Kardashian West championed her cause. Celebrations and excitement have abounded over the successful grassroots effort to bring Cyntoia Brown home—and rightfully so.
But what is being done to assure a successful transition for her to live in the community?
Brown will begin an uphill battle that faces many returning offenders. Ninety-five percent of people incarcerated in state prisons will be released back to their communities at some point (pdf). Approximately nine million people are released from jail each year across the United States. However, as a country, we lack robust reentry programs to help them reintegrate into society.
First, the emotional trauma that caused the path to incarceration cannot be ignored. Brown was a victim of sexual abuse early in life and became a victim of sex trafficking. The things she had to do to survive left an imprint of trauma and pain that could easily resurface under stress. Brown is not alone in her story. Almost half of the women in jail or prison were physically or sexually abused before their incarceration. Thirty-seven percent of women in state prison say they were raped before their incarceration. Women are not protected within the prison walls; 15 percent of incarcerated women have been victims of prison sexual assault. Brown and other women released from prison face myriad other issues. In addition to post-traumatic stress disorder from early trauma, the violence that often surrounds them on the inside, coupled with a non-restorative prison culture leads to further instability upon release. Brown may also have survivors’ guilt because she got out, and knows others who are similarly situated and who did not get the same treatment.
Secondly, what about education and employment? Upon her release, Brown will be subject to a release plan that includes conditions such as employment, education, counseling and community engagement. Brown entered prison at 16. Now in her 30s, she was able to receive her associate and bachelor’s degrees in prison from Lipscomb University. Kate Watkins, director of the LIFE program of Lipscomb University, told me that Brown, as well as all students who complete the program while in custody, will have the opportunity to continue their education with the university upon release, with scholarships and financial assistance to be made available.
However, not every prison has a wide array of educational opportunities. Education has been proven to reduce recidivism by 43 percent. Lack of education leads to a reduced ability to get employment—employment opportunities that are even more restricted due to having the status of “convicted felon.” Clemency is not the same as exoneration. Brown has a conviction for murder and robbery on her record—which makes it almost impossible to find employment. This highlights the need for more “ban the box” legislation so that people returning from prison can get jobs.
The difficulty in getting employment, as well as not having a stable place to land, leads to formerly incarcerated people being 10 times more likely to be homeless than the average population. The numbers are higher for women, people of color, and people over the age of 45.
What returning citizens need is the ability to earn a living so that they can have decent housing, food, and all that is needed for basic survival. Additionally, therapy is needed to address the trauma, and to teach returning citizens how to make healthy decisions moving forward—not fueled by fear or fight/flight instincts. Many can benefit from support groups of other people who have walked the path successfully to move forward.
Robust support needs to be provided to every person who leaves prison, not just a privileged few. We need to have uniform reentry programs across the country. Our prisons need to have fully funded rehabilitation programs—including addiction programs, education, and usable trade programs. Robust reentry programs keep our communities safe by lowering recidivism and allowing people to return with a path to creating a positive life.
Clarification: 8/7/19, 8:48 a.m.: Cyntoia Brown also received her bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University. The story has been updated to reflect that information.