More than Cyntoia Brown: Thousands of Sexual Violence Survivors Languish behind Bars

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

In January, 2019, Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency by Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, after spending fifteen years in prison. Brown was originally sentenced to life in prison at age sixteen after being convicted of first-degree murder for shooting her rapist. Brown was sexually trafficked, as well as abused and drugged repeatedly. In a January 10, 2019, interview with Democracy Now!, Mariame Kaba, the co-founder of Survived and Punished, an organization supporting survivors of violence who have been criminalized for self-defense, said that there are thousands in Brown’s position.

At age sixteen, Brown killed her rapist, fearing for her life. Rather than showing sympathy for Brown’s circumstances, the court tried her as an adult and ultimately sentenced her to life in prison. After serving fifteen years, Brown had the chance to speak at her clemency hearing in May 2018. She earnestly admitted to wrongdoing in killing her rapist. This clemency hearing received attention from celebrities, such as Rihanna, expressing disgust at a system that enables rapists and incarcerates victims. Media coverage led to national attention, resulting in the governor’s office receiving 6,000 calls in a day urging the court to release Brown.

Kaba told Democracy Now! “There are thousands of Cyntoia Browns in prison,” survivors serving sentences for defending themselves against their predators. In an article published by the Guardian in January, 2019, Kaba wrote that multiple studies indicate “between 71% and 95% of incarcerated women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner,” and many have experienced “multiple forms of physical and sexual abuse” in childhood and as adults, a pattern that experts have described as the “abuse-to-prison” pipeline. On Democracy Now!, Kaba referred to activist Susan Burton, another incarcerated survivor, who has argued that the system is essentially “incarcerating trauma” when sexually-abused victims are sentenced to prison for self-defense.

Cyntoia Brown’s case eventually received national attention, but the public remains unaware of many more stories like hers because establishment news outlets seldom treat them as newsworthy. In 2012, Marissa Alexander was convicted in Florida of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, when she used a gun (which she was licensed to own) to fire a single warning shot into the air to deter her abusive husband. In a pretrial hearing, the judge ruled that the state’s Stand Your Ground law did not apply to Alexander’s defense, and, as Kaba described in her Guardian article, a jury later found Alexander guilty after just 12-minutes of deliberation. She was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years. In January 2017, after two years of house arrest and three years of incarceration, Alexander was freed through what Kaba described as “good lawyering and a national participatory legal defense organizing campaign.” Kaba observed that self-defense laws are often interpreted “very narrowly” when women of color and gender non-conforming people invoke them in domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

A 2019 United Nations report, issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, found that human trafficking continues to rise. According to the report, “Most of the victims detected globally are trafficked for sexual exploitation,” and “The vast majority of detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and 35 per cent of those trafficked for forced labor are female.” Although the federal government and many state governments are cracking down on human trafficking circles, there is no coverage on what happens after these circles are exposed. Rather than helping the victims trapped in these horrific environments, sexually-abused victims are often incarcerated.

Although the UN report has focused recent news coverage on human trafficking, that coverage seldom refers to cases like Cyntoia Brown’s or  Marissa Alexander’s. A January, 2019 Fox News report focused on President Donald Trump connecting human trafficking in the US to illegal immigration, while CNN focused on the UN trafficking report as a global issue rather than a domestic problem. By disconnecting readers and criminalizing victims, corporate media coverage fails to show how the judicial system systematically punishes survivors of sexual abuse for acting to protect themselves.


Amy Goodman, “There Are Thousands of Cyntoia Browns: Mariame Kaba on Criminalization of Sexual Violence Survivors,” Democracy Now!, January 10, 2019,

Mariam Kaba, “Black Women Punished for Self-Defense Must be Freed from Their Cages,” The Guardian, January 3, 2019,

Student Researcher: Jaidene Samiec (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)