Five naked adolescent boys stand in a correctional facility shower, bracing themselves.
In the window, grown men, some of whom have committed heinous and violent crimes, hammer forcefully on the glass, jeering at the boys.
“We’re gonna get you,” the men yell.
Raymond Santana, a member of the now-celebrated Exonerated Five, paints a harrowing picture of incarcerated life as a juvenile in an adult correctional facility.
“It’s a heavy thing to put on a 14-year-old boy,” says Santana. “But, that’s reality.”
Santana, along with fellow Exonerated Five member Yusef Salaam, discuss social justice and growing up in prison during Salt Lake Community College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Keynote.
“What do I do? How do I survive?” continues Santana. “You have to grow up overnight, something that you’re not ready to do, but you have no choice. You’re in a detention center, you can’t scream out for your mama, and you can’t cry. So, you have to adapt to your situation, and you have to do it quickly. If you don’t, things will start to happen.”
In 1990, Santana, Salaam and three other teenage boys – Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray – were wrongfully convicted of the brutal attack and sexual assault of a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park. Four of the boys, ages 14 and 15, were sentenced to five to 10 years in prison, while 16-year-old Wise received up to 15 years.
A New York judge vacated their sentences in 2002 after DNA evidence solely linked another man, Matias Reyes, to the crime.
“It’s tantamount to wanting the American Dream but living the American nightmare,” says Salaam, on the experience of serving time as a then-15-year-old boy.
Both Santana and Salaam recall a childhood that appears to be in direct conflict with the nature of their previously alleged crime.
“I loved to skateboard, loved hip hop, loved to sketch and draw, and I always had a curfew,” recalls Santana. “[I] didn’t have no dealings with the law, I didn’t know who Miranda was. I was in my innocence.”
Salaam, on the other hand, had an interest in computers and worked with them at an early age.
Beyond lost innocence and diminished dreams, however, the reality of their false convictions was even graver.
“Because they made the mistake of saying five ‘brutes’ committed the crime, the real criminal was out there committing more crimes, murdering and assaulting several others,” says Salaam.
“Regardless, we had to make a choice in prison,” continues Salaam. “It’s about how you do time and not let time do you, it’s about you grow from something as opposed to go through something.”
While many in Salaam and Santana’s shoes may have lost all hope, the two pursued education while serving time. They ultimately left prison with college degrees.
With this, Santana urges black and brown youth to pursue education, and though Salaam and Santana may not see the full fruits of their investment in this lifetime, they hope future generations will make their visions realities.
“The best thing we can do is talk to young kids, who are part of a generation that isn’t afraid to speak their minds. You are the policymakers of the future,” says Santana.
Furthermore, Santana urges black and brown youth to take up stations in life where affecting change can be done from within “the system.”
“Whether you want to be a police officer, a firefighter, a judge [or] the president of the United States, we need to occupy more of those spaces and affect change that way,” he says.
Santana and Salaam have a tandem message of hope and caution.
“Black and brown people have been the cattle for ‘the system’ for a long time, but what happens when that stops? What’s next? The system will evolve, and they have to consider who can’t afford to stay out of the system,” warns Santana. “It doesn’t matter about color anymore. It’s about class.”
Salaam shows reverence for his experience and hopes others with similar stories don’t have to be defeated by their circumstances.
“They need to know they can live their lives as full as they want to, that they were born on purpose and with a purpose. That’s what this is all about,” remarks Salaam. “We got comeback power, y’all.”