Professor Jerry Flores op ed in speaks to the Cyntoia Brown sentencing and incarceration of disadvantaged women

December 21, 2018 by Kate Paik

Professor Jerry Flores recently updated his published article in The Conversation Canada, "Cyntoia Brown needs support, not 51 years in prison," to address her recently granted clemency. It is now entitled "Clemency for Cyntoia Brown was long overdue," where Professor Flores discusses the surprising and welcome development of the case of a teenager who was convicted of killing a man when she was just 16 years old, and forced into sex work. Despite acting out of self-defence against sexual violence, Brown was initially tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder. From her story, Professor Flores highlights the issues around treatment of young, poor girls and women living in unstable situations – many of which are regularly exposed to drugs, violence and multiple forms of trauma.

Professor Flores is an Assistant Professor of Sociology with teaching responsibilities at the UTM campus. His areas of research include studies of race and ethnicity, gender and crime, prison studies and ethnographic research methods, among others. He recently published his first book titled Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration, and has published articles in top area journals such as Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society. He is currently conducting two projects – the first investigating how the use of videos can help prevent violence in police-citizen interactions; and the other regarding the continued disappearance of Indigenous women in Canada.

We have posted an excerpt of the article below (the full article can be found here).

Cyntoia Brown needs support, not 51 years in prison

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently confirmed that Cyntoia Brown must serve 51 years in prison for shooting and killing a man in 2004 when she was just 16.

News stories and social media have widely reported and shared Brown’s story. Many have compared her harsh sentence to lesser ones for white juveniles since the state of Tennessee first tried her case more than 10 years ago. The decision this week was the result of an appeal to her original sentence, submitted because it is now unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison...

...A cycle of incarceration

Brown’s story mirrors other marginalized young women of colour living in the United States. I have conducted fieldwork with 50 incarcerated Latinas, age 12-19, in Southern California and wrote a book about their lives: Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration.

The girls I spoke with often experienced abuse in their homes. They ran away to escape the abuse. They spoke about being left no choice but to engage in high-risk behaviour, including shoplifting, hitchhiking or soliciting. They were vulnerable prey for older predators who began “relationships” with them, exchanging sex for access to clothes, food and shelter. Many like the ones I spoke with end up behind bars.

Tragically, the experience of marginalized girls in the U.S. and Canada are eerily similar. The tragic stories of Cyntoia Brown and Tina Fontaine, a young Indigenous girl whose body was found in the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014, have parallel issues despite the roughly 2,000 kilometres between Nashville and Winnipeg where they lived.

A recent study by the Vera Institute found that approximately 66 per cent of incarcerated women in the United States are women of colour — and 86 per cent of them have experienced sexual violence, often at the hands of an intimate partner or caretaker. Additionally, 79 per cent of these women care for children. Almost all incarcerated women included in the Vera Institute study lived in poverty.

These findings are confirmed by other classic and contemporary research done with incarcerated women. What is staggering is that 82 per cent of women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses like shoplifting or using drugs.

In short, inequality, a lack of essential services and supports geared toward women help contribute to tragedy for so many poor, young women.

Ironically, when girls fight back against abuse they are often punished by authorities or others in power. If they run away and are caught by the police they are arrested, incarcerated or often returned to the very home where they experienced abuse. They fight back against the abuse of friends, family or boyfriends they often face more mistreatment or end up behind bars...

Read the full story.