Growing up Behind Bars: Q&A with Yusef Salaam

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Yusef Salaam was one of the five teenagers falsely convicted in the brutal rape of a white woman in Central Park in 1989. The convictions were overturned in 2002, when a serial rapist confessed to the crime, but Salaam had already served his full 5½-year term in prison. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Salaam about his experience and the impact it had on his life.

In person, Salaam carries a dignified, purposeful, and positive aura. He seems to be using his situation as an opportunity to help youth by sharing his message with them.

In the course of our interview, he touched on the point that when he was exonerated, the media coverage was insignificant in comparison to the press coverage leading up to the conviction. But the documentary The Central Park Five, which chronicles the case  has given Salaam and the others a chance to finally share their story. Here’s more of what he had to say.

YCteen: You were 15 at the time. You had no record and had never been arrested. Did your naïvete about the tactics of law enforcement play a role in your being charged with this crime?

Yusef Salaam: None of us really knew what Miranda was back then. [Miranda rights refer to your right not to incriminate yourself after being arrested, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. An officer must make sure you understand these rights.] You don’t feel like you have the right to remain silent—you feel like, “If I don’t say nothing, those guys are going to do something bad to me.”

I’m not only talking about the five [of us kids] but also our parents. Some of our parents hadn’t even known anything about the system. Some of them were seen on videotape seeming like they were agreeing with the process that their sons were going through, these false confessions.

And unfortunately all of us were led to believe that if we just said we did it, we could go home. People who know the law, they know that’s crazy. But when you beat people down for 12 hours, 36 hours, don’t give them food, drink, you get them in this delirious state.

YCteen: What role did the media play in your conviction?

Salaam: I think it was such an attractive case, the way the media was spinning everything—these people from the darker enclaves are emerging out into society and they’re hunting for folks…there was this colorful language that they had to describe us, like a “wolf pack,” and it played to the fears that people had.

Many people, even in the black community, bought into the lie because many of them had been hurt by people who looked like them. I think it was easy for people to assume the worst rather than assume the best. No one had ever heard of us before so it was easy for them to say, “This is who these guys are.”

The worst part about it is because of the way [the media and law enforcement] went after us, the intensity with which they went after us, this allowed for the real perpetrator to continue to hurt folks, and ultimately one of his victims he murdered.

YCteen: How did prison affect your life?

Salaam: It’s one thing to go to jail knowing you’ve committed a crime. But to be a young person having never done anything wrong and get placed in this system…everything we knew was taken away. We were put in the worst prisons they could possibly find. I went to a maximum security youth facility and people were getting maimed, people were getting hurt, stuff I can’t even describe, and that would go on daily.

It takes so much from you, and that is one of the reasons a lot of people come out of prison really scarred. They come out with post-traumatic stress syndrome, some can’t even function in society anymore. It’s a wonder that we’re doing a little bit OK. But the indelible scars that prison left on us are there, all the time.

YCteen: You completed your prison term and were released before you were exonerated. What was it like trying to get your life back on track?

Salaam: Trying to get back into the community is extremely hard. The years they took us out of society were the years we grew and developed and learned how to be adults. And we were put in a place where we had to learn how to survive. Forget learning to be an adult. Forget learning how to balance a checkbook or drive a car, we had to learn how to stay alive the next day. A lot of us came home to that same reality.

You adapt to [the violence of prison], you learn that that’s your reality and that’s what you do for years upon years. So to come out of that….That post-traumatic stress is there. It’s a struggle.

This wasn’t just a 5 to 10 year sentence, this was a death sentence. What I mean is, if we survived prison, we weren’t supposed to survive on the street after prison. We were supposed to come back through that revolving door because you can’t take it [on the outside].

We were also labeled Level 3 sex offenders, and that meant we were going to have to register [with law enforcement] for the rest of our lives. In society, every door would be slammed in our faces.

YCteen: Twelve years after you were convicted, the real perpetrator came forward and confessed, and you were exonerated in 2002. What was that like?

Salaam: Being officially exonerated was exhilarating. But the public didn’t start viewing us differently until after this film [The Central Park Five] came out. News of the exonerations was quickly swept under the rug, so some folks who never saw this film [still] think we got free from prison because of some technicality, and that we were really guilty of the crimes.

The great thing this film is doing is causing people’s minds and hearts to change. It’s the same story that’s been [told before]. The difference is, now we’re talking about what happened in the process of obtaining those video confessions. We’re talking about what happened to us through this whole process. We’re talking about trying to get our lives back together. And that is changing a lot.

YCteen: Do you feel bitter about what happened to you?

Salaam: I think all of us got to this point where we accepted what life had given us. We didn’t know if we were going to live or die, if we were ever going to be vindicated. I came home to the reality that I was accused of this crime and I could never escape it. Everybody I met I would have to at some point tell them that I was accused of this crime and I didn’t do it. Some folks would believe me and some folks wouldn’t.

But if you hold bitterness inside it’s going to kill you, so better to take that energy and try to do something productive. Some of us got our college degrees in prison; that was a step toward saying at least when we get out of this we might have some type of future.

YCteen: What can young people today learn from what you went through?

Salaam: People always say, “You shouldn’t talk to the cops, don’t say nothing.” But you can’t not say nothing, because they have tactics and skills that will cause you to say something. Instead, you should ask for a lawyer. Make that your mantra. They’re going to try to make you feel like, “Why do you need a lawyer—did you do something wrong?” But it’s your right to have a lawyer.

This story originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by New York City teens. YCteen is published by Youth Communication, a non-profit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.

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