On Thursday, April 15, Raymond Santana, a member of the Central Park Five, joined Men of Color (MOC) in a Zoom webinar to discuss the broken prison system in the United States.
In 1989, Santana and four other boys of color — all between 14 and 16 years old — were convicted of attacking and raping a young white woman in Central Park. One boy was tried as an adult and served a 12-year sentence in prison. The rest of them were sent to juvenile detention, serving five-year sentences. It was not until 2002 that serial rapist and killer Matias Reyes confessed to the crime, exonerating all of them.
The case became a prime example of racial profiling, discrimination and inequality within the criminal justice system. In 2003, the five men sued the City of New York for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress, which resulted in a $41 million settlement in 2014 — more than a decade later.
Santana, who now works with the Innocence Project to help put an end to wrongful convictions, was featured most recently in the popular Netflix docuseries When They See Us, which tells the five boys’ story. The series earned 16 Emmy nominations.
President of MOC Jimi Bello ’22 and member Minka Soumah ’23 moderated the event, asking Santana about his experience in prison, the process of his exoneration and the institutional racism that persists within the prison-industrial complex.
Bello began by asking Santana about his psychological state during his years in juvenile detention, specifically about how his feelings progressed over the years he spent in the system. Santana talked about how long it took him to process his wrongful conviction, explaining how his mental health “took a beating.”
“To enter the system at 14 years old, and to not have an idea of what I wanted to be in life, and to, in the blink of an eye, go through this process where everything happens so quickly. … Two years go by, and you’re still processing things,” Santana said. “It wasn’t until I was into my twenties when I was able to sit back and start to see things for what they really are.”
Santana went on to talk about how he often felt like this would be his life forever, unable to grasp what his next steps would be. Even after being exonerated, Santana described feeling trapped, as if the world was against him. “We get to exoneration and there were still articles being written about us, saying that we were guilty,” he recalled.
It was not until Santana took Black studies classes in college that he felt a true sense of awakening, learning about the 1994 crime bill that led to mass incarceration. The bill incentivized states and localities to build more prisons, pass truth-in-sentencing laws and increase the length of prison sentences.
“When I finished the class, it gave me a whole new perspective on history, on our culture, and I had to go back and look and compare what happened to us as 14- and 15-year-olds,” he said. “I’m able to look back at the prison system and find out how it’s because of billion-dollar budgets that exist on the weight of slave labor.”
Santana also asserted that the penal system has not changed since his exoneration. He spoke of the billions of dollars invested into prisons, and how the institution was designed to perpetuate mass incarceration. “This system is about business, it’s about money. Everybody who is involved benefits from it,” he said. “A lot of people rely on this system that operates on the backs of people of color.”
Santana then moved on to talk about reforming the system, citing that 90-95% of prisoners still have hopes for the future post-incarceration. Mass incarceration is a cyclical experience, he explained. Many return to prison after release, often having been put into circumstances that lead to them feeling as though there is no other choice. According to a 2019 study, 83% of state prisoners returned to prison over a nine-year period, nearly 40% for nonviolent crimes and 64% for violent federal crimes over an eight-year period.
“A person can return back to prison for a nonviolent crime within six months to a year,” Santana explained. “That’s why the recidivism rate is so high.”
Not equipped with proper support systems once out of prison, Santana noted that ex-convicts often turn to drugs as a way to cope with their mental health.
Santana went on to emphasize that change needs to happen through rehabilitation rather than punishment, which could be achieved through a reallocation of funds.
“Nonviolent offenders who have drug cases need to go to treatment programs, not be in prison,” he said.
Santana added that he comes to colleges and universities to encourage young students to get involved in this kind of change. “We need all hands on deck. This is a system that impacts everyone.”