During the Rethinking Reentry Symposium February 23 at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Law, Cyntoia Brown Long shared her belief that the criminal justice system isn’t doing enough to rehabilitate and assist those who are being released from prison and trying to reestablish their lives.
Long, who gave the Rose Lecture in a virtual presentation hosted by the Tennessee Journal for Race, Gender and Social Justice, shared some of her story with a group of more than 270 attendees as part of the Rethinking Reentry Symposium.
Long was a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking who was arrested and convicted in Tennessee in 2004 of killing a man who had solicited her for sex.
For years, Long and her supporters maintained that she had acted in self-defense, and former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam commuted her sentence in 2019. The Tennessee House then passed legislation inspired by her case that aims to protect sex trafficking victims who are minors. Long is now a speaker, activist, and author who advocates for individuals who have been incarcerated.
During the discussion, Long said community members play a key role in addressing criminal justice reform and should work harder to connect services with those who need them.
“The question is, do you care enough to do something about it, or are you just posting that you care on social media?” Long said.
Long said there is a disconnect between the services that are purported to be available to those who are incarcerated and those that actually exist. If someone in prison wants to access information, they’re likely to be provided with an out-of-date phone book or a years-old encyclopedia, she said, but internet access is rarely an option.
Likewise, correctional counselors are overworked and have little time to discuss or offer resources to inmates, she said. Prison officials often pay lip service to offering educational opportunities, but the reality for Long was that teachers weren’t committed to teaching—if they showed up to teach at all.
“The lovely thing about being free is that you have access to resources,” she said.
Long was especially critical of the circumstance in which she found herself—a teenager convicted of a crime as a juvenile but having to serve out her sentence as an adult.
“There is a disconnect between the court system, [the Division of Children’s Services]…and the places these kids end up,” she said. “We need to stop always thinking that you have to put a kid into a facility.”
Too often, she said, a juvenile who is suspected of a crime has other issues that should have been addressed but weren’t. Long’s own difficulties at school and conflicts with her friends and parents should have signaled a need for intervention long before a crime was committed, she said.
“They’re not being referred to the agencies that can help them,” Long said. “For me it was an identity issue as a biracial adopted girl that I was struggling with and led to rejection. And I didn’t know how to articulate that.”
Long described the relationship she had with her attorney, College of Law alumnus Charles Bone, as having played a critical role in her comeback. Bone, who appeared at the event alongside Long, said he felt an obligation to help Long after seeing her story in a documentary.
Advocating for her release was a team effort that included a number of attorneys, Bone said.
“The system is broken,” he said. “Anyone who denies it hasn’t looked at it very closely.”
“Your relationship with your attorney is important,” Long said. “You don’t have a voice. So to know that you have someone who will go to the ends of the earth to advocate for you…that’s everything.”
Rachel McClelland (865-974-6788, firstname.lastname@example.org)