The Current

Yusef Salaam spent years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. But he refuses to be bitter

Yusef Salaam was wrongfully convicted of rape and assault as part of the Central Park Five, and spent six years and eight months in prison because of it.

Salaam, a member of the wrongfully convicted Central Park Five, says he won't let what happened destroy him

Yusef Salaam is sharing his experience in the criminal justice system through his book Better, not Bitter. (CBC)

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As part of the Central Park Five, Yusef Salaam spent almost seven years in prison for a violent rape that he did not commit, but he refuses to let his anger about the ordeal turn into bitterness.

"If I choose bitterness and I become embittered by the process, then I turn into a disaster," Salaam told Matt Galloway, in an interview for The Current and Vancouver Writers Fest. 

Instead, Salaam has chosen to embrace what poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said about using anger to make change.

"Use that anger: you dance it, you march it, you vote it, she says. You do everything about it. And then she said, you talk it. Never stop talking it."

That's what Salaam is doing in his new book, Better, not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice. The book recounts how the Central Park Five, a group of Black and Hispanic teenagers, were wrongfully convicted of the assault and rape of a woman jogging in the New York park in 1989. 

WATCH | Yusef Salaam explains why he won't become bitter

Yusef Salaam refuses to be bitter despite wrongful conviction

1 year ago
Duration 2:09
Yusef Salaam was wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park, but he isn’t letting what happened make him bitter.

They each spent between six and eleven years in prison, but their convictions were later vacated in 2002 after a serial rapist confessed to the crime, and DNA tests confirmed his guilt. The men were awarded $41 million US in a lawsuit settled in 2014, but the city denied any wrongdoing, and asserted that prosecutors and police detectives did nothing wrong at the time.

"We were buried alive and forgotten. The system hoped that we would succumb to whatever fate they had ... damned us to," said Salaam, now a motivational speaker who fights for racial justice. 

"Thirty one years later, I still have a smile on my face." 

Guilty until proven innocent

Police picked up the five teenagers after a string of violent incidents were reported in Central Park on April 19, 1989. 

Salaam said they were questioned without legal representation, and were coerced by police into making confessions. Those statements were later ruled admissible in court.

Five black and Latino teenagers, including Salaam, were wrongly convicted of an attack on a Central Park jogger. (TIFF)

During the high-profile trials, Salaam said that he and his Black and brown co-defendants were treated as guilty until proven innocent.

Before they even went to court, prominent New York tycoon and future U.S. President Donald Trump took out an ad in several New York city newspapers, calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty for the five.

"The public was made to believe that we had actually done this crime," Salaam said. 

"Our fate was signed, sealed and delivered because of the colour of our skin and not the content of our character," he said. 

The five were found guilty. Before he was sentenced, Salaam was asked if he wanted to say anything. He was worried about what might happen in prison, so he gave a speech, not knowing if he'd ever be able to speak publicly again. 

"It was those words that gave me strength, telling the system that I was accused of this crime that I didn't do," said Salaam. 

He said it hit a nerve with the judge.

"He was enraged at the audacity that I would stand up and say what I said, and the implications [of it]," Salaam said.

"I didn't think about any of that stuff. I just thought about me saying my last piece."

'Dream that impossible dream'

Entering prison, Salaam worried he wouldn't make it out again.

"We were told that going to prison for rape was the worst crime that you can go to prison for ... and inmates have their own way of dealing with that kind of atrocity," said Salaam.

But on the inside, he said he felt protected by his faith, and his resolve for the future.

"If you let that unnatural environment get its clutches around you and turn you into a prisoner, you return a monster. You return, unable to survive," said Salaam. 

"You have to dream that impossible dream. You have to project yourself into a future that you will want and create for yourself."

Salaam was released on parole in 1996. He remembers his sister picking him up and asking what he wanted to eat — and realizing that as a free man, he now had the opportunity to choose.

He picked Belgian waffles, something he'd never had before.

"It sounded exotic. It sounded fascinating. It sounded like something that I should eat," said Salaam.

WATCH | Belgian waffles, and the taste of freedom

Yusef Salaam remembers his first meal after getting out of prison

1 year ago
Duration 1:47
Yusef Salaam, a member of the wrongfully convicted Central Park Five, remembers getting Belgian waffles for his first meal after being released from prison.

He said it was like waking up, albeit still in a nightmare (his conviction would not be vacated for another six years). 

"Now I'm awake in the nightmare and now I can walk around freer in that nightmare. Now my eyes are open and they'll never be closed again," he said.

Leaving prison behind

In prison, Salaam said he was always looking over his shoulder, and had to have eyes in the back of his head.

Leaving that behind, and "turning off all of the things that you turned on as a part of your survival," has been a challenge, he said.

But he feels he's adjusted well, and said that some of those habits, like always being ready in case things go sideways, aren't necessarily bad.

"I think I'm doing great. I think that there's moments, of course, where I have to check in with myself, perhaps check in with family and see how everybody is doing as well. But life is good," said Salaam. 

Director Ava DuVernay, center, with the Central Park 5: from left, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Anthony McCray and Yusef Salaam. They were attending the world premiere of When They See Us in New York in May 2019. the Netflix show tells the story of the men's wrongful conviction. (Donald Traill/Invision/Associated Press)

He believes good can come out of his story, even more than 30 years after he was accused. 

That's why he wrote his book, and continues to share his experience. It's why he urges people to hear his story.

"The greatest thing that we can do is try to participate in our true freedom and in truth, justice and true equality. Because if we never participate, non-participation is participation," said Salaam. 

"But if we participate, then we get the opportunity for future generations to have seeds of change planted inside of them."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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