Two of the "Exonerated Five" — Yusef Salaam, Ph.D. and Raymond Santana — spoke about surviving their wrongful imprisonment, and criminal justice at a discussion moderated by Africology/ African-American Studies Professor Timothy Welbeck at Temple University on Wednesday evening.
Salaam and Santana were joined by Emmy-winning actor Jharrel Jerome, who played the role of Korey Wise in Ava Duvernay's Netflix miniseries "When They See Us."
"Life was full of adventure...We lived in the ghetto, but it was our ghetto, it was beautiful...It was home," said Salaam.
Salaam, who served a six-year-and-eight-month sentence, stated this in response to the question of what life was like before imprisonment.
Santana, who served a five-year sentence, described himself as "just a kid who loved to sketch, loved to watch videos. He was just a free kid that didn't have a care in the world."
Fast forward to April 1989, life changed forever after they were arrested for rape and sexual assault among other allegations.
Describing the turning points of their arrest, Santana stated, "In the station, we realize we've been manipulated. When we get to the detention center, at that moment, we realize all we have is us.'"
Throughout the conversation, Santana and Salaam remarked on their introduction into the system, the elaborate measures the police took to frame them, and their opinions on criminal justice in America.
"I was seeing things for the first time," said Salaam, referencing his experience watching the film. He added that he was particularly struck by the strategies of the police, stating that they were adamant on "[separating] this case in such a way...to make sure the narratives..." supported their moves.
Now, Santana said he will not go to Central Park.
"I don't go back to the park," he said. "As I got older, I don't ever go back to the park, never."
"I had to force myself to go back in there and it was nerve-wracking," he said.
The conversation closed with the gentlemen encouraging students to be politically active.
"We want an even playing field," said Santana. "We don't discourage you from being a prosecutor. We don't discourage you from being a police officer. We need you in those positions so it can be ran right."
Salaam pushed for unity across color lines.
"The true fight is not black and white. The true fight is battling spiritual wickedness in high places," he said. "The system has been feeding on black and brown bodies for a long time. The system will grab anybody it can get. It takes a village to fight against the system. We have to work fast, we have to work strategically and we have to work together."
The conversation (An Evening with The Exonerated Five) was organized by Temple's Main Campus Program Board.