On the morning of April 19, 1989, five Black and Latino teens were arrested when the body of a White female, later identified as Trisha Melli, was found unconscious, beaten and raped in Central Park. Three youth were initially arrested: Salaam, 15, Santana, 14, and McCray, 15, interrogated and held at the Central Park Precinct for the night, without their parents or attorney. The two others Richardson, 14, and Wise, 16, were also later arrested, interrogated and coerced by the police officers into confessions. All of them were convicted with sentences which ranged from six and a half years for the juveniles for rape and robbery, to eleven and a half years for Wise, eldest at 16, who was convicted as an adult for sexual assault, first-degree assault, first-degree riot and sent to Riker’s Island to fulfill his sentence.
In 2002, the Manhattan district attorney Robert Morganthau, successfully had the convictions overturned after the confession from Matias Reyes, whose spree of rape continued during their trail. However, twenty-five years later their wrongful conviction has not been settled by the state of New York. Last year, Mayor De Blasio made a campaign promise for a swift settlement for the Central Park Five of their wrongful arrest and imprisonment.
Despite this, the exoneration has not changed the culture of law enforcement. Black men and boys were targeted in the late 1980’s with the creation of the NYPD Street Crime Unit, which allowed the city’s illegal stop and frisk policy targeting Black and Latino males, with the trajectory towards a generation of incarcerated Black youth. If one were to review cases from the late 1980s of other Black youths convicted, how many of them were wrongfully sent to prison?
The film, “The Central Park Five” directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, rips at your gut. The powerful film has brought national and international attention to those Black youths wrongfully incarcerated. However, the well-known directors of the documentary have not wielded enough influence for the city to reach a settlement in the wrongful conviction.
Social Psychologist Saul Kassin, is quoted in the film, “the goal there is to break the suspect down into a state of despair, into a state of helplessness. So that the suspect gets worn down, and is looking for a way out.” After the youth’s night of interrogation, all broke down and wrote that they witnessed and partook in a crime that they were not involved with. In the documentary, at the end of the trail, the police department did an internal investigation and Jim Dwyer of the N.Y.Times reported that they “found the police department did nothing wrong.” However, the police officers, who interrogated the boys, changed their lives for the worse, forever. As Kevin Richardson’s sister, of one of the convicted youth, states in the film, “all of us are victims.” The arrest and conviction of the boys created a vicious cycle of fear that enveloped their family, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, friends and their community, against law enforcement.
There are many, who are working to help those incarcerated. One is a teacher I had at Norwalk Community College for Creative Writing, Regina Krummel, who worked at the Bedford Women’s Maximum Security Prison. In class we discussed poems written by these incarcerated women, which, in 2012 Regina compiled in a self-published book, “The Gates Clang Shut,” and was fired from the prison for publishing.
With the exception of Wise, The Central Park Five youth were allowed to further their education, this is no longer an option. As Richardson states on camera, education in prison now is not possible. Has our society turned their backs on helping Black youth, men, and women in prison? Are prisons solely money making institutions? Not educating incarcerated Black youth leads to an uneducated generation. We need to invest in the education of these incarcerated Black youth.
By Virginia Lynch Dean
M.S. Candidate in Media and Culture at the New School