Cyntoia Brown, Bresha Meadows, and How the 'Criminal Legal System Disappears Survivors'


Cyntoia Brown was 16 years old when, in 2004, she was convicted of murdering Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old man who had solicited the teenager for sex. Brown, who had been in foster care since she was an infant, had run away from her adoptive family and was living with a boyfriend who she said forced her into sex work. After Allen drove her to his home and began behaving in ways that made Brown fear for her life, she shot him with a gun she had stashed in her purse, killing him in an act of self-defense.

Her age, her circumstances, Allen’s actions—none of that swayed a jury, which found Brown guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced the teenager to life in prison. She has been inside a prison for almost as long as she has not; Brown is now 30 years old. The subject of a 2011 documentary and a campaign to release her from prison that received widespread attention last year after several celebrities posted about her case on social media, Brown’s fate now lies in the hands of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, whose office is considering giving her clemency. (The Tennessee Supreme Court recently ruled Brown would have to serve at least 51 years in prison before she’s eligible for release.) In recent weeks, a campaign to free Brown, led by the Nashville chapter of Black Lives Matter, has gained a new urgency. Earlier in December, after a Black Lives Matter-Nashville activist asked Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam whether Haslam would grant Brown clemency, Haslam replied his office was reviewing her case, noting that her case “has gotten a lot of publicity.”

Yet the fact that Brown remains in prison—despite the legal efforts to free her, despite the high-profile attention her case has received—highlights just how hard it is to free incarcerated survivors of domestic and sexual violence once they have been, as Colby Lenz of Survived and Punished put it to me, “disappeared” into prison. While much of the attention Brown’s case has received has framed her as being “failed” by the criminal justice system, it’s hard to not see instead that it’s working exactly as intended.

Survived and Punished is a collective that works on campaigns to free survivors of domestic and sexual violence who, like Brown and Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old who shot and killed her abusive father in 2016, have been incarcerated for fighting back against their abusers. Formed in 2016 by individuals who had worked on separate campaigns to free Marissa Alexander, a woman who was sent to prison after firing a single warning shot into the wall of her home to ward off her abusive husband, Survived and Punished is now working on several campaigns calling for governors to grant clemency to incarcerated survivors, successfully winning clemency for Kelly Savage, Barbara Chavez, and Tammy Garvin, three women in California.

One of the things we’re trying to expose is all the many, many ways that survivors are prosecuted for surviving.

Their work serves two purposes: the immediate and urgent need of getting people out of prison and of creating an alternate narrative around criminalized survivors, one that pushes back against the idea that only “good” victims deserve support. Jezebel spoke with Lenz recently about the campaign to free Cyntoia Brown and other incarcerated survivors, who gets their survival valorized and who gets criminalized, and why a reliance on the legal system to obtain justice for survivors often fails those who fight back. As Lenz put it: “The presumption is that it’s about justice and safety but in fact, the state is continuing to batter survivors and disappear them.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

JEZEBEL: One thing that really stands out to me about your work is that so many times there’s this desire for survivors of domestic and sexual violence to be what you call the perfect victim. Your work pushes back against that narrative.

COLBY LENZ: One of the things we’re trying to expose is problems between this kind of “perfect” victim or “good victim” versus the criminalized survivor, which we also see as a kind of non-victim status. One of the other things we’re trying to expose is all the many, many ways that survivors are prosecuted for surviving. Once survivors are prosecuted, and for many, even before that point of prosecution, they’re refused the status of victim because of racism and sexism, ableism, and the general anti-survivor culture.

So, if part of them doesn’t fit within this idea of the perfect victim, then they’re likely to not get services from the anti-violence world. Then, once they’re prosecuted, there’s no way back to victimhood, once you have this criminal narrative and once you’re seen as a criminal within that system, no matter what you did. No matter if you did something or if you did nothing at all.

That narrative that criminalizes people is so powerful. It allows no room for survivors who act in self defense or survivors who act or don’t act, in context of coercion. Or survivors whose abusive partners harm one of their children or somebody else. And in particular, part of what we’re trying to expose is how black women, in particular, Native women, other women of color, trans women, poor women, how at all these intersections, people are refused the status of victim in this systemic way.

Part of what we’ve seen is that without creating public pressure through organizing to force a different narrative—and because of the power of prosecution and how much discretion and how much power the courts have to criminalize whomever they decide to criminalize—that there’s no way out, unless we organize through public pressure to demand a different outcome. And, even when we do that it’s very challenging, right? I think that a good example of that right now is, it’s not a Survived and Punished campaign, but with Cyntoia Brown, we can see that even when a case can get national attention through organizing and get the attention of celebrities and so on… Hopefully, Governor Bill Haslam will do the right thing and grant her clemency before he leaves office.

You can see through her case that even when you have a massive degree of support, even if it breaks, and even if she deserves even more support just like all survivors do, it’s very, very, very challenging to free somebody post-conviction. Because, then that criminal label is backed by the state, it’s backed up by all of these really powerful systems that we see as systemically oppressive to survivors, and particularly survivors of color.

Why is it so challenging, despite growing outrage, to free women and others survivors who have been imprisoned, like Cyntoia Brown? What are some of the long-standing structural issues at work here?

Part of the problem is that I do see is the criminal legal system disappears survivors, so then the work that has to be done to force this issue into the public eye is really hard work. It’s not just that people are disappeared into these institutions with very little hope of ever gaining freedom or ever getting their story out, but it’s also that they’re disappeared in terms of resources, legal resources, anti-violence organizations.

So, these stories that come out into the public eye, come out because of organizing and because of the continued survival encouraged of those survivors who are also willing to have their stories out. But there are thousands and thousands and thousands more who don’t reach the public eye, and then there are so few resources to actually fight for their freedom. When we have this very powerful and important movement with Me Too and Times Up, the time has to be up on criminalized survival. That money, should be funneled into amazing legal resources.

When survivors are disappeared into these prisons, and I say prisons and include jails and detention centers, then we have no resources to fight for their freedom, for the most part. Then, also those fight post-convictions fights from the courts and as you can see, with Cyntoia and others, through these executive clemency kind of processes, are so challenging. Part of the other problem, from the beginning, is the criminal legal system. We see that it takes on the role of the batterer when these prosecutors and judges and so on prosecute and convict survivors. So they take on this role and then that battering is backed up by the state and the presumption is that it’s about justice and safety but in fact, the state is continuing to batter survivors and disappear them.

Can you talk more about the connection that you draw between the reliance on the criminal justice system to secure justice for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and how that often actually leads to the opposite?

Part of what anti-violence organizations and advocates have done for decades now is partner with police and district attorneys in an effort to seek a certain kind of justice for survivors. So, that partnership has basically entrenched this problem, in many ways between good victim and bad victim survivors of domestic and sexual violence and has made survivors who are criminalized, who of course are more poor, more women of color, more trans people, queer people, immigrants and so-on, even more vulnerable to that criminalization because they don’t fit that status. And that means they’re not getting those services, which can be crucial if they are attentive to the survivors needs and don’t discriminate based on past criminal convictions or anything like that.

It further entrenches this problem and makes survivors more vulnerable to criminalization and to getting these extremely long sentences and to being further disappeared in the system. There is some movement within the anti-violence field to pull back on some of those powerful partnerships with district attorneys and so on, and reconsider and to look at some of the consequences of these partnerships, but it’s not enough. The other side of that, is we believe the anti-violence organizations need to be prioritizing criminalized survivors, not just loosening relationships with prosecutors but actually fighting for and defending and supporting criminalized survivors at each point of criminalization, including post conviction.

We work in California with a lot of survivors in the women’s prisons who are begging, always begging, for these anti-violence organizations to support them, to come in and teach curriculum to support their chances at freedom and that continues to be a real struggle. Part of our work is to help move the anti-violence world into prioritizing supporting criminalized survivors and also ending that criminalization.

What do you think are some of the reasons why larger, more long standing anti-violence organizations are often reluctant to take on that work?

I think some of it is funding stream, for sure. For many organizations, those partnerships are from district attorneys are part of their work. People are hesitant to lose what they see as important relationships and funding. And part of it is really a lack of knowledge and information about ending this problem and what reinforces that is the degree to which survivors are disappeared into the criminal legal system. We’ve heard stories from anti-violence workers about, “Oh yeah, this person was in our shelter and then she got arrested.” And we’re like, “And then what happened?”

There needs to be so much work done within those fields, to prioritize criminalized survivors and to actually follow people and support people when these terrible things do happen.

It makes me think of the way the mainstream immigrants rights movement lifted up the idea of the good immigrant, which left many immigrants who were at threat of deportation out of the picture or marginalized by that narrative. That’s changed as advocates pushed a different frame. Have you seen any shifts in the kind of public debate or conversation around supporting incarcerated survivors since you’ve started this work?

I do think in the last couple of years that there’s been a shift, somewhat. We can see it through promotion of these different campaigns, different people, like Bresha Meadows or Cyntoia Brown, or some of the survivors we’ve been able to get clemency for in California. There’s an opening that’s been forced through organizing different movements, to recognize what’s going on in terms of criminalized survivors and fight a little bit harder, even if it’s just signing a petition or circulating something on social media. I do think there’s more of a growing public awareness and more of a willingness to take simple action steps to support freedom for more incarcerated survivors. I think that’s right, I hope that’s true.

We saw with organizing the Free Bresha Meadows [campaign] that when we would make a call to action, that people across the country in many different, rural and urban localities would quickly run into action and organize the thing. I think that’s many things, I think that speaks to many things including the kinds of public action that Black Lives Matter and other movements have encouraged.

One of the ways that we’ve been trying to do that is both fighting to free individuals and trying to do these mass defense or mass release campaigns too. We have been really trying to create more resources to support public or popular education and to also support informal or formal groups to do more organizing to free survivors. Like the toolkit we created for defense campaigns or Survived and Punished curriculum, we’re trying to create as many tools as possible to disseminate the information and encourage more decentralized organizing everywhere.

I read that Marissa Alexander’s attorneys estimated they would need a quarter of a million dollars to really mount a successful defense. It made me realize the amount of work that goes into creating these campaigns. Can you share more of the nuts and bolts of running a defense campaign?

How much time do you have? Just kidding. It’s so much work, it’s so much work and that is why we’ve been dedicating more time to developing some of these tools to train more people to do the work, we just need more people doing the work, period. Right? And, we need to be as resourceful as possible when we’re doing the work because we’re up against these very powerful systems who are very dedicating to prosecuting.

I’d say that most of the work is collective labor to strategizing being in very close communication with the survivor who’s facing time or who we’re trying to get released about the strategies to fight for their release. And, working very closely, in the ideal situation, working very closely with attorneys who are already working on the case or finding new attorneys or raising funds to get better legal representation. Also raising funds to get domestic violence or sex trafficking experts.

It’s both building strategy for how to make the case against odds and against all of these controlling racist and sexist narratives, strategizing there and then finding the resources for the people who are gonna go strong and be that defense campaign. Both the organizers and the legal worker and then engaging the public. In some cases we’re not actually engaging the public, it’s all behind the scenes work because the case is too sensitive in whatever kind of way or the survivor doesn’t want to talk more media attention for whatever reason.

I think with Bresha Meadows, one of the reasons why they eventually would drop the charges and then eventually settle on the plea deal that would allow her much less time than she was facing—which of course is not the ideal outcome, you want them to just drop the charges, right, and apologize profusely for being horrible, immoral—but for her to get so much less time than she was facing, one because of public pressure and the court was getting calls from international media outlets that they wanted to come and film the trial. They don’t want that, you know? That kind of shaming people for these horrible punishing and battering practices is one of our biggest tools. And that takes a lot of work, you have to build the public support.

For us, we’re so careful in doing that in close communication with the survivor, with any family members who are involved. It’s, like you’re saying, a lot of work. Which is part of why we’ve also been strategizing about how to do more mass defense or mass release campaigns. Because women’s prisons are filled with survivors of domestic and sexual violence. We do not have currently the number of people and resources to fight individually for everybody.

Do you get a lot of requests from people who are incarcerated?

We do. Including from family members and friends on the outside who are fighting the fight and trying to figure out how to amplify it. So, those conversations have also led to these efforts that we’ve been doing in California, campaigns we’ve been doing in California and New York to demand commutations for survivors from these governors, right? So, we’ve had some very big successes in California and the New York campaign is working in the tougher administration, a tougher political moment, but I believe they will succeed in forcing more commutations.

With these commutation campaigns, we’re fighting for individuals in this mass release context. We’re like, you need to free Tammy Garvin and also all of these other survivors and trying to push through sets of people. So, that’s one strategy that we’re using.

We’ve been circulating petitions and trying to show as much public support as possible. [California Governor Jerry] Brown has said, in some of these cases, that us being able to show that ten thousand people want this person to be released has been helpful to them in making those decisions. We’ve just been trying to take advantage of the moment and we’re anticipating that Brown will grant more clemencies at Christmas and then hopefully again before he leaves office in January. We are hoping that more survivors we’ve been pushing for will be amongst those people. About half of the people in the women’s prison he’s granted clemency to so far have been survivors, criminalized for their survival. Probably more than half are actually survivors. It’s definitely been a theme in his commutations, especially for people in the women’s prisons.

We are appreciating that and also anxiously preparing for the next administration here in California and to try to push for them to continue granting. It’s one of the only options, especially when survivors are sentenced to life without parole, then clemency becomes one of our only options, which of course, is not good enough. But, we’re gonna organize as much as we can, in the meantime, to try to use that as a pathway to release.

Not that California is some sort of haven of reform, but what do you think is possible in a state that is more actively hostile towards any sort of criminal justice reform? What would be work that could happen in a state like Louisiana, for example?

It just makes me think about Ky Peterson’s case. We’re not the leads on it but we’ve been supporting and organizing in Georgia. How do you move a governor in a state where there’s less possibility of progressive criminal justice reform? It’s an open question, I think part of it is that in those cases we need to build even more public support.

In the case of Ky Peterson, that opens up the issue of good victim versus bad victim, right? Because he’s a black trans man who was raped and defends himself, he’s literally told by his own defense attorney that he will not be a believable victim. And, that’s his own defense attorney, so it indicates part of what’s in the fight within the public domain—to garner mass support that refuses that. Then it’s even more of a struggle when it’s an administration whose not considering granting clemency. So, I wish I had a better answer to that but it’s something we’re grappling with and trying to sort out. Cyntoia Brown comes up again in that context. It will take this national movement to force the governor to do this because he should be ashamed if he doesn’t.

And I would say, the more people with power and the more celebrities who are willing to get behind these campaigns, it really can be very helpful.

Kim Kardashian!

Right, totally.

Seems like she’s had her eyes opened, which I think we’ll all take, right?

Absolutely. And, I think it can also help educate the public. The reason why she was able to have this role in supporting the organizing to get Trump to grant clemency to [Alice Johnson] was because the president has power over the federal system. A lot of people don’t yet understand that we have to rely on the state governors to do that for people in the state prisons and it’s the state prisons are where we incarcerate the majority of the people in the country. Celebrities, as they learn, can also help educate the public about these different pressure points to force releases. I think the other thing we’re trying to encourage as much as possible with Survived and Punished that the public supporting these campaigns really does matter, like, it really can make the difference between a child like Bresha spending the rest of her life in prison or being home with her family, as she is now.

Beyond freeing one person, which is critical, what other purpose do these defense campaigns serve?

Part of what we’re trying to expose is prisons as gender violence, instead of it being that here are these survivors with these exceptional stories, and we want you to see this as wrong, have compassion, and support their freedom. Part of what we’re trying to expose is that prisons are fundamentally organizers of gender violence, organizers of sexual and domestic violence at the hands of the state. Part of the way that we work to tell stories alongside survivors is to put it in that context, that these stories are not exceptional. They’re fundamental to who we are incarcerating.

It’s not only that we are incarcerating survivors of domestic and sexual violence en masse, but it’s also that we are then further abusing them through these systems that are largely unmonitored and increasingly known for their horrible abuse that happens behind the walls. We’re working to expose that and to challenge some of the fundamental tenets of mass criminalization—the divide between the good victim and non-victim criminal, but also divides between what people see as violent versus non-violent offenses and who deserves criminalization and incarceration.

We’re trying to break apart those false binaries in the service of freeing survivors but also of exposing how racist and sexist these systems are, and classist. If we don’t challenge the idea that people who commit violence should be locked away for life, then we are supporting the idea that self-defense is a criminal act. And we are further disappearing survivors who take action in self defense.

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