Ahead of the release of her memoir, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption In the American Prison System” Cyntoia Brown sat down with Essence to discuss all of her life events leading up to the book’s release and how time in jail gave her the space to reflect on the life she wished to create for herself.
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“I was always kind of outcast so it makes you feel like you don’t belong,” she began, a statement she says that planted the seeds for her choices down the road.
Brown said as a young girl she became resistant to heeding the word of the woman she was raised by, who tried to offer structure.
“I think I pushed my mother away because she was trying so hard,” Brown said. “As a teen I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I didn’t want structure. My mother was all about structure.”
Brown was placed in foster care due to her parents inability to take care of her, and after her mother spiraled due to an addiction on drugs and alcohol.
Brown found herself within the sex trafficking system due to a romantic relationship. Her journey as an underage sex worker led her to the fatal encounter with a 43-year-old man named Johnny Michael Allen, on the evening of August 6, 2004. In the end, Brown ended up shooting Allen, claiming self-defense because she feared for her life.
“If you’ve never been like trapped like that, never felt trapped like that, never felt like something was about to happen, like, you can’t really understand that emotion and it’s hard to put that into words,” she continued.
At the age of 16, she was sentenced to life in prison, a bleak outlook for a girl with her whole life ahead of her at such a young age. But her story would not remain thrown away in the halls of the Tennessee Prison for Women, where she was interned.
Many advocacy groups rallied around her, and a 2011 documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” brought her story national attention.
Soon, Brown was the center of a push to grant her clemency. And in January 2019, former Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam, granted her release from prison. Brown was officially released in August, but will remain under parole, after spending 15 years in jail.
But in her personal life, there was a large piece of her that she kept hidden from the public. While in jail, Brown had fallen in love and married Jamie Long, an entertainer and singer.
“It wasn’t immediate that it was a relationship, you know, we started on a friendly basis, and he was a prayer warrior and he was there for me heavily in the beginning,” she said.
“There were many years spent working out me, spent finding myself outside of everything I went through, before I even met Jamie. So the healing process, that happened before any of this ever happened.”
“Social media has its good, but it also has people who just think they know you,” she said offering a response to those who raise an eyebrow regarding Long’s intentions. “They invite themselves into your personal matters. There’s a certain element of it that you put yourself out there in the public eye, there’s a certain part that’s going to be brought under scrutiny, but when it comes to things like that, these people ain’t in my house. so I don’t give it much thought. Whenever that door closes and it’s just us, that’s what it is.”
Brown said she began to feel most hopeful in prison and began her internal healing process when she participated in the college course, which has now led her to consider law school.
“I’m committed to the same fight that got me free,” she says. “I definitely think that there’s a need for reform, not just in prison but in sentencing and the way justice is [handed] out in our country. I’m committed to [fighting] for all the other people who are just like me.”
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