Cyntoia Brown-Long says she’s taking every chance she can get to speak about life behind bars. She entered the national spotlight while serving a life sentence for a crime she committed as a teenage sex-trafficking victim.
Just months after she was granted clemency, Brown-Long sat down with WPLN’s Samantha Max to talk about freedom, her new book, and the unique challenges women face in prison.
Here’s a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SM: How does it feel to not only be walking free, but to know that there’s a huge spotlight on you right now, that there’s so many people, kind of, watching how you’re going through this process?
CBL: You know, freedom feels great. It’s incredible. It feel natural, you know. I know that a lot of people say that, you know, there has to be an adjustment after being locked up so long. And it’s like, no. Being locked up is the adjustment. … And, as far as the spotlight, I feel like it’s a blessing. I feel like it’s a great opportunity for all of the other people who are still in prison. … You know, I feel a sense of responsibility to them, and I carry them with me every single day.
SM: I guess a term that’s come up with your case a lot is the “sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline,” which is kind of a mouthful. But tell me a little bit about what you think people might not realize about the connection between sexually exploitation — especially of teenagers — and how, you know, young women might end up in prison after?
CBL: So, when I was in that position, you gotta understand, a lot of people think, when you’re being exploited, when you’re being trafficked, that there’s constantly someone with a gun to your head saying, ‘You need to do this.’ And, no, it’s completely psychological manipulation. And I was at a point where there was nothing that I wouldn’t do for this man. There was nothing that I wouldn’t do to make him happy to feel like, OK, I’m worth something here. I’m doing something well.
There is a fear element there, whenever he starts hitting you, because it’s never in the beginning, right? It never starts off that way. And so, there’s a fear element, but there’s also that element where it’s like, you know, I just want to do this because, like, I mean, this is what I’m supposed to do. Like, you’re programmed like that. …
I can’t tell you how many women that I was incarcerated with — either, you know, they were selling drugs or they were present for robberies and things like that when they’re in this relationship with this man.
SM: You’ve witnessed some real traumas in your life. Tell me how you, kind of, reconciled those and how you made sense of how they impacted you and the person that you are today?
CBL: Yeah, so first, you know, I had to realize that, No. 1, it wasn’t my fault. Like, I had to stop taking ownership over other people’s actions. I always questioned myself, first, like, “Well, why did I put myself in that position?” And, “Why did I believe him?” And, “Why did I?” And it’s like, no, wait a minute. I didn’t ask him, “Yes, assault me. Yes, take me, take me and exploit me. You know, take me and use me up.” I didn’t ask for that. Who asks for that? And, you know, I had to forgive myself first.
Like, I deserve to be happy. I deserve, you know, to live a life without being bogged down by my past. And I really just had to unpack that. And I’m not saying that that happened in a day, in a month. It took years. And even when I sat down to write this book, going back in some of these experiences and reliving them, it’s like, wow. Like, I didn’t know I was still carrying that emotion. I didn’t know that I still felt that way.
SM: People who have never spent time in prison, what are some of the little details about daily life in there that you think people wouldn’t notice if they hadn’t been exposed to it themselves?
CBL: I mean, where do I start? I guess maybe, like, the best example is, you know, I can remember feeling like I had it made because I had access to as much toilet paper as I needed. … For pads, it’s the same thing. You know, they provide you 10 pads, which are, like, this little, have no wings. This is a women’s facility. They don’t cater to women.
And, if that’s not good enough for you have to pay six, seven dollars for tampons and pads. And, you gotta think, they only give you $20. If they’re taking half your money, like they to a lot of people, to pay for court fees, you only get $10 a month.
And so, sometimes, you have to make choices. Am I gonna buy soap or am I gonna buy deodorant? So, the little things like that where we can’t even provide for ourselves, and you force us into a position where we’re having to beg our family, who’s already going through their own hardships. And just things like that.
I can remember so many nights just laying in my cell, like, crying, because it’s like, “Man, I don’t know where my next bar of deodorant’s gonna come from.” And I don’t want to ask my mother, who’s a school teacher. And, you know, she’s having to pay for all these expensive phone calls. She’s having to pay for visits. You know, she’s coming up here to visit me, and she’s being treated like she’s a criminal. She’s being treated like she’s the inmate.
And there’s just so many little things like that. And you try to speak out. … You know, they’ll act like they’re listening. They’ll pull out their little notepad and take notes, but nothing ever changes. So, it’s very frustrating just to survive on a day-to-day basis in there.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.