Advocates Say Cyntoia Brown's Case Is Part Of The 'Sexual Abuse-To-Prison' Pipeline

Dec 3, 2017

In a moment when the country is grappling with issues of sexual misconduct and the abusive treatment of women and girls, a murder case involving a then-teenager who says she was forced into prostitution is back in the national spotlight more than a decade after the key events took place.

A number of A-list celebrities, including Rihanna, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian West, have taken an interest in the case of Cyntoia Brown, a 29-year-old serving a life sentence for the murder of a Nashville man in 2004.

Brown says she was forced into prostitution when she was 16 and repeatedly raped and abused by her pimp. That year, a 43-year-old man picked her up in a parking lot and took her to his home for sex, where she says she thought he was going to kill her for resisting him. That's when she fatally shot him.

When she was tried as an adult in the murder, the jury rejected her claim of self-defense. Now, though, advocates say her case should be reopened so she can be seen as the victim of sex trafficking that she was.

Along with broader issues about the justice system, advocates are also highlighting this case as an example of what they call the "sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline." Yasmin Vafa, the executive director of the human rights organization Rights4Girls, tells NPR's Michel Martin about her research into the "pipeline" and why the way the criminal justice system treats victims of human trafficking needs to change.


Interview Highlights

On the importance of Cyntoia Brown's case

I think that what is interesting about Cyntoia's case is that she was arrested back in 2004, which was a year before our federal anti-trafficking laws even contemplated the fact that Americans could even be victims of sex trafficking. And so now of course we know all these years later that not only are American citizens able to be victims of sex trafficking, but in fact the vast majority of sex trafficking victims here in the United States are U.S.-born and are U.S. citizens.

Many of them, like Cyntoia, are girls of color, many of them have suffered multiple instances of childhood sexual abuse, have had some interaction with the foster care system. And so her story really shows a narrative of so many young women and girls that we know.

On the 2015 report examining the "sexual abuse-to-prison" pipeline

In a number of states that had available data looking at girls in the [prison] system, the overwhelming majority of girls behind bars had suffered instances of sexual and physical violence. In some states like South Carolina it was 81 percent of girls; in places like Oregon it was upwards of 93 percent. So when we looked at those high rates of traumas together, with the most common offenses that girls were being arrested for, it really made clear that it was that victimization that was driving the abuse.

So sometimes that looks like a young girl who's running away from an abusive home or foster care situation who is then arrested for the offense of running away. And sometimes that looks like a girl who is engaging in substance abuse to cope with the years of trauma. And in the most extreme cases, it looks like what happened to Bresha Meadows, what happened to Cyntoia Brown — in the case that they were actually forced to take more extreme measures to protect themselves as a result of society essentially failing them.

And I think that it's not a coincidence that the whole issue of Cyntoia Brown has made a kind of resurgence during the wake of these "me too" disclosures because I think it shows what "me too" looks like for some of our most vulnerable girls.

NPR Digital News Intern Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This has been a moment when this country is grappling with issues of sexual misconduct and the abusive treatment of women and girls. In that context, a criminal case is moving back into the national spotlight more than a decade after the key events took place.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "ME FACING LIFE: CYNTOIA'S STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So he was reaching for something?

CYNTOIA BROWN: Yeah, I thought he was reaching for a gun, so I'm like, oh, [expletive]. (Unintelligible) I thought he was going to hurt me or rape me or something.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And then what'd you do to him?

BROWN: I shot him.

MARTIN: That was Cyntoia Brown from a 2011 PBS documentary by filmmaker Daniel Birman. You might have heard her name because a number of A-list celebrities - Rihanna, Kim Kardashian-West, LeBron James - have taken an interest in her case. In West's case, even hiring lawyers to take a new look at it. She's 29 years old now, serving a life sentence for the murder of a Nashville man in 2004. Cyntoia Brown says that she was forced into prostitution when she was 16 and repeatedly raped and abused by her pimp. That year, a 43-year-old man picked her up in a parking lot and took her to his home for sex. She says she thought he was going to kill her for resisting him, so she shot him. When she was tried as an adult, the jury rejected her claim of self-defence.

Now, though, advocates say her case should be reopened, so she can be seen as the victim of sex trafficking that she was. Along with broader issues about the justice system, advocates are also highlighting this case as an example of what they call the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline.

To hear more about that, we called Yasmin Vafa. She co-authored a study on that very issue. She's co-founder and executive director of the human rights organization Rights4Girls. She was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

YASMIN VAFA: Thank you.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, this story isn't new. But it seems to be getting quite a lot of attention now, and I was just wondering why you think that is.

VAFA: Well, I think as you pointed out, having the celebrity attention to this issue has been really important. I think grassroots organizers and activists have been working for a long time to shed light around issues not only of Cyntoia Brown but young women like Alexis Martin, LaTesha Clay's case a couple of years ago, Bresha Meadows and others around the country. But I think that what is interesting about Cyntoia's case is that she was arrested back in 2004, which was a year before our federal anti-trafficking laws even contemplated the fact that Americans could even be victims of sex trafficking.

And so now, of course, we know all these years later that not only are American citizens able to be victims of sex trafficking but, in fact, the vast majority of sex trafficking victims here in the United States are U.S.-born and U.S. citizens. Many of them, like Cyntoia, are girls of color. Many of them have suffered multiple instances of childhood sexual abuse, have had some interaction with the foster care system. And so her story really shows the narrative of so many young women and girls that we know.

MARTIN: To that point, you were one of the authors of a 2015 report titled "The Sexual Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline." Could you talk a little bit more about what the study found?

VAFA: Sure. So what we actually found in the report was that in a number of states that had available data, looking at girls in the system, the overwhelming majority of girls behind bars had suffered instances of sexual and physical violence. In some states like South Carolina, it was 81 percent of girls. In places like Oregon, it was upwards of 93 percent. So when we look at those high rates of trauma together with the most common offenses that girls were being arrested for, it really made clear that it was that victimization that was driving the abuse.

So sometimes, that looks like a young girl who's running away from an abusive home or foster care situation who is then arrested for the offense of running away. And sometimes, that looks like a girl who is engaging in substance abuse to cope with the years of trauma. And in the most extreme cases, it looks like what happened to Bresha Meadows, what happened to Cyntoia Brown - in the case that they were actually forced to take more extreme measures to protect themselves as a result of society essentially failing them. And I think that it's not a coincidence that the whole issue with Cyntoia Brown has kind of made a resurgence during the wake of these me too disclosures because I think it shows what me too looks like for some of our most vulnerable girls.

MARTIN: I hope you don't take offense to the question, but I did want to point out that there are those who might argue that Cyntoia Brown's life has actually improved while she's been incarcerated. According to the documentary, she's received her associate's degree. She's working on her master's degree. She's been a mentor to other young women in prison. And some might argue that's the first time in her life she's actually been physically safe. And I just wanted to ask what you would say to that.

VAFA: What I would say is if you think that detention and incarceration is safe, particularly for young women and girls, particularly for survivors of sexual violence and trauma, then you're very mistaken. We know that the prison system has a number of very harmful and degrading conditions of confinement that are traumatic for any individual in the system. But when we look at girls' unique pathways, realizing that so many of them have suffered multiple years of very graphic, you know, sexual and physical violence that...

MARTIN: Being strip-searched, being patted down...

VAFA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...That it kind of just reinforces the - so before we let you go, as we mentioned, a number of high-profile celebrities have taken an interest in this case. Kim Kardashian-West has even hired attorneys to take a new look at this case. Is there the possibility of reopening this matter?

VAFA: I think that some of the advocates and attorneys from Cyntoia Brown's case that we've had the opportunity to connect with are exploring those avenues. I think they are trying to argue that if this case was looked at today, there would be a very different outcome. And so I know there is efforts to reach out to the governor in Tennessee. And I think as a result of a 2012 Supreme Court case, a number of years ago that showed that life sentences without parole for juveniles were fundamentally unjust, they were unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment, there is a growing effort among the states to show that sentences liked Cyntoia that do allow for parole but not until she's almost 70 years old are equally unjust.

That's Yasmin Vafa. She's co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls - that's a human rights organization. Yasmin Vafa, thanks so much for speaking with us.

VAFA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.