Can They See Us?
How Mass Incarceration Destroys Lives and Economic Security
By Anne Price, President
I was in my twenties and living in New York on April 21, 1989, when a 28-year-old white investment banker, Trisha Meili, was found brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. Five teenagers — four Black and one Latino, all from Harlem — were indicted for attempted murder, rape, assault, and rioting, and would serve between 6 and 13 years in prison before being exonerated after the real culprit of the vicious assault was found.
The public outrage over the arrests and the trials of the five teenagers exemplified a cultural, class, and racial divide that was reshaping the city at the time. It was a defining moment for me as a young Black woman.
The media frenzy that gave rise to racist, animalistic tropes about young Black and Brown teens as “monsters,” “animals,” and running in “wolf packs” echoed our nation’s history of lynching and revealed to me how language can be powerfully and swiftly weaponized to enact punitive policies and shift public perception. Later that year, I would work for the Child Welfare Administration and witness firsthand the devastating consequences of the crack epidemic on Black and Brown families. The harmful narratives and baseless scapegoating of Black and Brown people created “law and order” policies that ripped tens of thousands of kids from their families into foster care, creating a direct pipeline into the criminal justice system.
When They See Us, Netflix’s new four-part series on the Central Park jogger case, provides a harrowing look at the lives and families of wrongly convicted Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the series forces us to bear witness to the loss of childhood innocence and the unfulfilled dreams of the five teens, who ranged from ages 14 to 16 when they were unjustly arrested and convicted. The series also provides an unflinching examination of race, class, poverty, and the criminal justice system at a crucial moment in our nation when we are calling, with growing urgency, for deep-seated criminal justice reforms.
While the roots of mass incarceration were planted in the two decades prior to the Central Park jogger case, the case led to new laws resulting in more children being prosecuted as adults than at any other time in U.S. history. As Elizabeth Hinton reports in The Atlantic, “these laws made it easier to punish children as young as 13 as adults and, in some cases, sentence them to life without the possibility of parole. In 1998 alone, roughly 200,000 youths were put through the adult court system, and the majority of them were Black.”
The human consequences of these policies have been devastating. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that “of all incarcerated people, youth held with adults are at the highest risk of sexual abuse; they are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth in juvenile facilities, and are at a greater risk of being held in solitary confinement than they would be in juvenile facilities.”
Much of the economic consequences resulting from subjugation through the criminal justice system are still unknown. The little we do know paints a bleak picture — limited employment and housing opportunities, low earnings, increased psychological stress and trauma, all contributing to profoundly diminished prospects for establishing any sense of economic security. Nearly half of those who are incarcerated earn less than $500 a year just two years after being released from prison. The median income for people who have been to prison is only $13,890.
It’s also not just about incarceration. People with arrests or convictions that were not imprisoned face similar obstacles. In many states, people with felony convictions are barred from receiving public benefits, living in public housing, working in specific jobs, or obtaining licenses for other positions.
Connecting the dots between mass incarceration and growing racial wealth inequities has become paramount for those of us working toward racial and economic justice. Understanding a full picture of the economic realities of people who have been subjugated by the criminal justice system is essential to designing meaningful policy interventions on their behalf.
By reframing the case in a new light, giving perspective to the young men’s innocence, their humanity, and all they lost, When They See Us is not just a powerful exposé of tragic injustice — it’s a call to action.
The Central Park Five case, followed by the murder of Yusef Hawkins and the brutal beating of Rodney King, called me, a group of my close friends, and, no doubt, others in my generation, to take action to address the stark injustices of the criminal justice system and the criminalization of Blackness.
Decades later, as we continue our work here at Insight to connect criminal justice reform to economic security, I still feel that anguish and pain of the late 1980s — a moment that is so powerfully, devastatingly captured in When They See Us. And I still often ask, when they see us, can they see us — for our humanity, our own dignity? This frame — seeing our fellow Black and Brown people as people equally deserving of justice and opportunity — is the frame we need to change our systems to seed equity for generations to come.