Yusef Salaam spent 12 years in prison until 2002, when the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced that it was vacating the conviction because of evidence confirming that he did not commit the crime.
He was one of five young men — all of them Black and Latino and teenagers — who were convicted of assaulting and raping a white female jogger in what became one of the most infamous trials of modern New York City history.
Today, Salaam lives in Harlem, works as wireless administrator with a health care company in Long Island and has become a sought-after speaker, traveling the country and talking about his odyssey with the criminal justice system. He speaks with intensity about his experience, saying it has fueled a chapter in his life that he could never have anticipated. Still, his memories of the prison experience seem never to be far from him.
“Being arrested in 1989 for this crime that we didn’t commit was the absolute most horrific thing that we could have ever experienced,” Salaam said, in an interview with BET.com.
“If you’ve never been involved with the system before, if your only involvement has been to see police officers on the streets, once you get into the clutches of the system and you begin to see the reality of what you’re about to go through, it’s a nightmare that you cannot wake up from.”
In the last year, Salaam and the other one-time teenage defendants have become national celebrities following the release of the critically acclaimed documentary, The Central Park Five. The film was directed by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns along with Sarah Burns and David McMahon.
Despite the years that have passed since his release, the anguish of having been incarcerated seems fresh. They were each in their teens — between the ages of 14 and 16 — when they were arrested and had barely begun living their lives, he reminds people. He was 15 when he was arrested, a high school student planning to study graphic design in college.
“For you to be locked away in your formative years, for you to be locked away before you get a chance to graduate high school, you don’t get a chance to experience what it’s like to go on your first job interview until you become an adult. Many of us didn’t know what it was like to go on a date,” said Salaam, who is now 39.
In particular, he spoke about the effect his incarceration had on his family, specifically his mother.
“They made living in New York City a living hell for them,” Salaam said. “My mother would talk many, many times about folks spitting on the floor in front of her and crossing the street.” He said his mother recalled neighbors “seeing her walk into the building with grocery bags and knowing that she would need assistance to get the door open, would see her and shut the door in her face. There were police officers driving down the block from where she used to work, getting on their bullhorns and saying: ‘That’s the mother of…’ and using all kind of other racial slurs.”
But while in prison, Salaam studied and earned a degree in applied science. He now speaks to young people about the false, glorified perspective of prison that is often presented in contemporary urban music, saying that it is instead a harsh existence that should be avoided at all costs.
The music culture of today, he said, leaves “young people thinking that it’s a badge of honor to go to prison. Unfortunately for us, we’ve been there, and sometimes there are a lot of lies that are being told.”
He added: “They’re not telling you about the guys who were crying because they want to go home. They’re not telling you about the torture that the officers can put you through, people getting thrown into the box and things of that nature.”
Over the last year, the city comptroller of New York, John C. Liu, as well as the City Council, has called on the city of New York to reach a settlement in the case of the so called Central Park Five. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration has so far not settled with any of the five.
When asked about his feelings about the city’s refusal to reach a settlement, Salaam said that he chooses to focus on the support the five received from the City Council and from Liu. Still, he voiced disappointment.
“Once you see the facts in the case, you realize, one, that we were absolutely innocent of this and, two, there was a willful stepping over of the law by the city and its various departments to say: ‘We’re going to go along with this. We’re going to make this stick,’” Salaam said.
“That is not the New York City that people want to believe they live in,” he said. “They want to believe that they live in a city that’s just, that’s balanced. But when you see things that are happening around you, you start saying to yourself, well, this is messed up.”
Does he harbor bitterness?
“You know, I don’t think it’s proper for me to say that I’m not angry. I don’t think it’s proper for me to say that I’m not extremely angry,” he said. “But because of my education, I read and listen to my elders. One of my elders, Nelson Mandela, said: To be angry and to be bitter is to drink poison and to expect your enemy to die.”
He added, “We can’t let this metastasize into something else and kill us. We need to take this hurt, this pain, this anguish that we feel and we need to channel it into going into elementary schools, into high schools, into colleges, into universities, into law schools, into police departments, whoever will let us talk to them. We want to go there and share our experience so that there will never be another Central Park Five.”
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(Photo: Roger Walsh /Landov)