In 1989, a woman was attacked and raped while jogging in New York City’s Central Park. Dr. Yusef Salaam was one of five Black and Latinx Harlem teenagers wrongly accused of the brutal crime. At just 15 years old, he was convicted and sent to prison. In 2002, DNA evidence exonerated Dr. Salaam and the four other young men sentenced alongside him. Collectively, they became known as the “Exonerated Five.”
Since his exoneration, Dr. Salaam has been striving to make the criminal justice system fairer. He joined the board of the Innocence Project—which works to free wrongfully incarcerated individuals—and regularly travels the country speaking on prison reform and social justice. In 2016, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama.
Dr. Salaam discusses why he believes the criminal justice system in the United States is stacked against people of color—and how that can be fixed.
How has the criminal justice system shaped your life?
I truly feel like I was given a death sentence. Because when you go to prison for the crime of rape, you have one of the worst experiences you can ever imagine, every single day. And if you somehow survive that sentence, the hope is that you do not survive socially. The hope is that society turns its back on you and you cannot live.
But what happened to me was that I was given the opportunity to educate myself and to think differently about who I am, about where I am and about why I am. And as I began to think about that, it changed the trajectory of my life and allowed me to imagine being free. I could imagine leaving the prison one day with my mind and my soul intact, as opposed to being a bitter person. This is something the criminal justice system doesn’t count on, and I think that that’s why it’s so important. As Maya Angelou says, ‘You should be angry. You must not be bitter.’
You’ve described your experience with the criminal justice system as being “railroaded.” What does it mean to be railroaded and why do you think it happens?
It means to be accused of a crime that you didn’t commit. And instead of being seen as innocent—which, according to American law, you’re innocent until proven guilty—they see you as guilty and you have to prove you are innocent.
When you look at this country’s founding documents, there is the Thirteenth Amendment, which basically says even though slavery is abolished, it’s allowed to continue by another name. They can turn you back into a slave for the punishment of a crime. The criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex is overwhelmingly made up of people of color. These are the people they’ve pushed to the margins of society; the people that they have declared war on. I call it the criminal system of injustice.
What is the biggest thing we can do to make society fairer for everyone, especially people of color?
I think the main thing is to provide things to people. It’s not just about race; all kinds of quality of life issues have to be raised up. And it’s easy to do: all you have to do is look at exactly what you need to survive yourself, and then share that with others.
In my faith, one of the things we believe is that we should treat every person how we’d treat ourselves or our family. So if I met a man, I would look at him as if he was my brother, my father, my son or my grandfather; if I met a woman, I would look at her as if she was my sister, my daughter, my mother or my grandmother. It would be a completely different society if we all saw each other that way.
What kind of work have you been doing to make sure there’s never another Central Park Five?
I’m on the board of the Innocence Project. What we do is we try to make sure that people who have been in prison for crimes they have not committed get the opportunity to finally get out of prison—especially through DNA evidence. Sometimes it takes decades, but it’s such a rewarding thing to free people from the clutches of the system.
I’m also always looking for opportunities to speak to young people, because they are the most vulnerable. Anything you tell a young person, if they believe it, they begin to move in that reality. I’ve seen that if you tell a young person that they are valuable, they begin to add value. So I’m doing everything I can in order to educate young people about the reality of what they’re facing. The system is betting on their bodies going to prison; it’s betting on their bodies going to graveyards. We have to bet on ourselves.