In 1989, 15-year-old Yusef Salaam was one of five Black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly accused of assault and rape in the so-called Central Park jogger case.
At the time of his 1990 trial, Salaam, then out on bail, felt confident that the truth would come out and that he and the other teens would be proven innocent.
"I was on the phone with a friend of mine and I remember someone running up to me, [saying] 'They got the verdict! They got the verdict!' " Salaam says. "And I told the person, 'Hey, they got the verdict. I'll see you in a little while. I'll be right back. I'll be home.' And I didn't come back until seven years later."
Each of the boys, then known as the "Central Park Five," was convicted. It wasn't until 2002 — well after Salaam had completed his nearly seven-year prison sentence — that DNA evidence confirmed that they were all innocent. A serial rapist and murderer had acted alone in committing the crime.
"When the truth came out, that's when we got our lives back," Salaam says. "But for those of us who had five to 10 years prison sentences, we had done all of someone else's time. ... We will never know what our life would have been like had we not gone through this horrible experience."
Salaam now refers to himself, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise as the Exonerated Five. Their stories were told in a 2012 documentary by Ken Burns and in the 2019 Netflix series When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay.
In the memoir, Better, Not Bitter, Salaam reflects on his wrongful conviction and his efforts to forgive those responsible for his vilification.
"You have to be able to forgive so that you can cut yourself from the ball and chain that's holding you back," he says. "It has nothing to do with the individual who harmed you, but everything to do with yourself."
On how the boys were forced to give false confessions
I remember when I was [at the precinct] with Korey [Wise] hearing him getting beat up in the next room. I remember hearing him yell out, "OK, OK, I'll tell you!" And he made, if I'm not mistaken, four completely different confessions, four completely different ones. And the one that he implicated me in, they played at my trial and all we wanted to do was go home. This was a nightmare. We were delirious with hunger. We were delirious, because time was passing and we didn't know what time it was, just a whole nightmare of the whole situation and I think what happened is, after a certain point, you break and in the breaking point, you say anything that will allow you to get out of that.
On the advice his mother gave him — which led him to not initially agree to the police's narrative
[My mother] told me something that's very important. And I think that the thing that she told me is something that I tell people often. She said to me, "Stop talking to them." And then she said to me, "They need you to participate in whatever it is that they're trying to do. Do not participate. Refuse." And for me, it was one of the most powerful learning tools that I could ever imagine, because here I was on my own, being told to stand my ground and being told in many ways that it's on me. "I can't come into the room with you. I can't fight for you. You have to fight for yourself. But I need you to know that whatever you do, they're trying to get you to participate in your own destruction."
On being in danger in prison because of how high profile his case was
I think all throughout our case, there was a knowledge of who we were. It was very difficult for us to hide. I'm saying "hide," because we wanted to be anonymous, but we had been convicted of this heinous crime. We have been vilified in the media. Over 400 articles [were] written about us within the first few weeks. And our faces were on every single front page of every newspaper in New York City for a very, very long time. So by the time we got to prison, the inmates had already known who we were. ...
You're told the worst crime that you can go to prison for is rape. The only crime that trumps rape is child molestation. And then you feel all of the tension, all of the negative [energy] ... you feel that, and you're walking through that in these prisons and here are killers around you. Here are [rapists] around you. Here are child molesters around you, and they want justice. They want to do to you what you have been convicted of.
On his feelings toward the police and prosecutors who put him behind bars
The overwhelming feeling that I have towards the police and prosecutors is that they knew that we had not done this crime. They knew it, but yet they chose to move forward. They built their careers off of our backs, and the law of karma caught up to them. And they never imagined that they would have to contend with these crimes that they committed — because these are crimes. They're supposed to be the upholders of law and they have things like prosecutorial immunity. But they were involved in prosecutorial misconduct. No one wants to be in a situation where the people at the highest level in life are the ones who are the most criminal. We want those people to be the most upstanding. They have to hold that truth in their minds and hearts as they move in the justice system because they're changing people's lives. ... The people who are supposed to uphold the law, it is criminal when they do the exact opposite of that.
On his healing journey
We've been able to make leaps and bounds in our healing, in our adjustments into society, but at the same time, it's still there lurking in the background. The awful experience that we should have never gone through is really always the cloud over our heads. But the cool thing about it is that we now know how to deal with those emotions. We now can say, "This is how you get through any prison that you may be going through," whether you're physically in bondage or not. Making the choices that are meaningful, taking the time to breathe, meditating, creating vision boards, all of those things are necessary.
They say the imagination is the precursor of what's to come, and so if you can imagine a future that is brighter than the one that you're growing through — and I'm saying "growing through" on purpose, because when you get to that point, you realize that you're not just going through something, but that you're being prepared for greatness, that you need to know the lows in order to appreciate the highs in life. I think that when I look at my story, being able to look at it from the outside gives me the tremendous opportunity to describe in full what it is that I had gone through, and then going back in and being a participant in my growth and development is important because you have to marry those two things together. And it's that that causes you to step forward with tremendous hope in the future, with tremendous faith in the future, knowing that it can only get better and not get worse.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.
You may recognize the name of our guest, Yusef Salaam, but you've almost certainly heard of the event that turned his life upside down. He's one of five teenaged boys who were arrested and convicted in 1989 of the brutal assault and rape of a woman in New York - the so-called Central Park jogger case. Police extracted confessions from four of the five accused, all of whom recanted those confessions, saying they were coerced by police. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking them to the crime, they were convicted by a jury and spent years in prison.
But in 2002, DNA evidence confirmed that the assault was committed by a serial rapist who confessed to acting alone in the crime and who gave police critical details corroborating his account. The convictions were vacated, and Yusef Salaam now refers to himself, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise as the Exonerated Five. Their stories were told in a 2012 documentary by Ken Burns and more recently dramatized in the Netflix series "When They See Us," directed by Ava DuVernay.
Yusef Salaam earned his GED while incarcerated and also earned an associate's degree from Dutchess Community College. He later continued his education at Hunter College and, in 2016, received a lifetime achievement award from President Obama. He's currently a motivational speaker and serves on the board of The Innocence Project, and he's written a new memoir reflecting on his experience. It's called "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice." He joins us from his home in the Atlanta area.
Yusef Salaam, welcome to FRESH AIR.
YUSEF SALAAM: Oh, thank you for having me.
DAVIES: I want to talk about your story, and I want to kind of begin by talking about the time after you were released from prison because I think, you know, a lot of people know your story but don't know the whole story. And I think there's a common belief that what happened was that you were wrongly convicted, sent to prison, and then after some years, when the true identity of the attacker was revealed, you and your four co-defendants were released, and you entered the world as free men known to all to have been the victim of this injustice. That's not the sequence, is it?
SALAAM: It is not. It definitely did not happen that way. Maybe for Korey because Korey was in prison and came out of prison as a result of the real perpetrator telling the truth about his crime.
DAVIES: He was in longer than you and the others, yeah.
SALAAM: Yeah, he was in there from 1989 all the way to and through 2002. And so when the real truth came out, that's when we got our lives back. But for those of us who had five-to-ten-year prison sentences, we had done all of someone else's time. We had done all of someone else's parole time. And we were, in many ways, resigned in life that we would be forever known as pariahs, as the scum of the earth, as the members of a group called the Central Park Five who we knew were wrongly accused, but the rest of the world believed that we were actually guilty of the crime and did the time.
DAVIES: Right. So I want to talk a bit about that five-year period when you were out but had this incredible stigma and burden on you. You know, you missed the part of your life from roughly age 16 to 23, right? And that's a time when, you know, you go through adolescence, and you learn about romance and infatuation and how to talk to people you're attracted to, and you get through your first heartbreak. And you come - and you're 23 years old, and you didn't have all that. You were incarcerated during that time. And then you have this whole thing. What was it like meeting people and talking to - you describe meeting a woman who you were interested in. I mean, then you had this secret. How did you deal with it? How do you know when to tell people, how to tell them?
SALAAM: Oh, my goodness. You know, it's like living life on eggshells, constantly trying not to break any eggshell, constantly being careful, definitely being hypervigilant of all situations. So those things that you would see portrayed in the news or portrayed in television and definitely on movies where you see people having a romantic evening, gazing into each other's eyes, walking down the boardwalk, holding hands - I never did anything like (laughter). That was perhaps one of the most scariest moments for me because in the vulnerability of what love - the possibility of love, you always say to yourself, what if, you know? And so you're always looking around. And in many ways that gives the person who you're with this feeling of uncomfortability. And it's not that you're even aware that you're making them uncomfortable, either. You're just so aware of your surroundings because of the unfortunate circumstance of prison and surviving prison that you'd just come through and, really, in many ways, that you never get over.
DAVIES: You spent a lot of time on parole. What were some of the most burdensome conditions? What was hard about that?
SALAAM: Oh, wow. The most difficult thing about being on parole is that when you're on parole, you have a curfew. And here you are, a grown man, and people who you're back in the neighborhood with, they're hanging out on the weekends. They're doing things that people do normally in normal society. And you have to come back home and be home, similar to what we were experiencing as children. And as soon as the lights came on, you had to be home (laughter).
And, you know, that was a difficult thing, especially if you worked, and the only jobs that you could find because of the conditions of your case - and by conditions, I'm really talking about something that people don't really always know, that when you come home from prison, you have to tell the employer that you were convicted of a crime. And in our case, it was the Central Park jogger case. And who would give us a job? But for those individuals that were lenient towards us and, you know, felt a little bit of compassion, sometimes they would give us jobs, and those jobs would be overnight shifts, you know? And so sometimes our parole officers would not want us to be out past those times. And so it was a bit of a challenge in that regard.
DAVIES: Did you have to go to classes for sex offenders? I mean, you were a convicted sex offender, even though you hadn't done it.
SALAAM: Yeah. You know, coming home from prison, one of the conditions of parole was that you had to get therapy, you know? We were not just convicted sex offenders, but they had listed us - after the Megan's Law, they had listed us as level-three sex offenders. That meant that we were sexual predators. I mean, can you imagine the word and what that conjures up - a predator? You know, that's just one of the most despicable and disgusting ideas that you can even think of. Of course, we were always kicked out of those sessions, similar to the sessions that we were kicked out of in prison because we had never, as a condition of that part of the process, agreed to, OK, well, tell us about the crime, the accountability of it all. What did you do, and why did you do it?
DAVIES: That was part of the therapy is that - you acknowledging and taking responsibility for your crime, right?
SALAAM: Yes, it was.
DAVIES: And so if you're a therapist employed in this process, and you're part of the legal system - you know, legally, the finder of fact is the jury. And the jury found you guilty. Therefore, in their minds, you are factually guilty. So when you would get into this, what would happen? Would they just tell you, you got to leave or...
SALAAM: (Laughter) Yeah, it would be a struggle. But it was a mental struggle. It was a war on me knowing that I could stand my ground before I really knew what stand your ground was and being able to stand on that square with conviction and know that I didn't do this and be able to be - you know, be willing to go toe-to-toe, be willing to fight for that truth. And oftentimes, the therapist would succumb and say, you know, you can leave.
You know, it was one of those things I'll never forget. A few times I would be there, and maybe one or two of the members of the Exonerated Five would be there. And, you know, I remember with some of us, if we didn't come out at the same time and we came out a little later, those of us who got our sea legs already were able to fend for the ones who didn't. And they kicked us all out (laughter).
DAVIES: Wow. You know, you make the point in the book that when you were in prison and on parole afterwards and had the burden of this unjust conviction, it didn't just affect you; it affected your family. I'm wondering what your brother and sister suffered as a result of this experience.
SALAAM: You know, there's probably untold harms and horror stories because we never really sat down as a family, similar to the Exonerated Five having never sat down as a sacred brotherhood, to discuss these issues. That happened with "When They See Us" with regards to the Exonerated Five. But with a family, you know, we've all just tried to piece our lives back together. My sister was able to graduate from Stony Brook University and, you know, receive a college degree. My brother graduated from the University of Michigan and received a college degree as well - you know, just trying to be successful, trying to make the most out of life, this life that gave you lemons. And you're making lemonade, and it's bittersweet, but at least you have something to drink.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We are speaking with Yusef Salaam. His new book is "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Yusef Salaam. He was one of five young men who were convicted of, then later exonerated, of the attack in the Central Park jogger case. His new memoir is called "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice."
So I want to talk a bit about the events in 1989 and 1990 - the arrest, the questioning, being taken to the police station. You say in the book that you actually went looking for the police because you heard they were looking for you. Your attitude was, I'm prepared to help you?
SALAAM: Yeah, it's the strangest thing, you know? Knowing what I know now, how can you help a system that sees you as a crime, sees you as guilty - you know, a system that tells you very, very clearly through the Miranda warnings, you are - you have the right to remain silent, but when we watch TV, we know that - what do they usually tell you? And they told us as well inside the interrogation room, you know, only guilty people remain silent; you can talk to us. But then part two is what? Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Now, mind you, we weren't told our Miranda warnings before questioning. As a matter of fact, I'll never forget - when they finished questioning me, they took this card, slid it across the table and told me to sign it. I didn't even read what it was that I was signing.
DAVIES: Was it a blank card? Or did it have...
SALAAM: It had writing on it. And that was what they were supposed to give me - meaning, they were supposed to say to me, do you understand your rights? They were supposed to tell me each of these rights, and they - yet they did not do this.
DAVIES: Did you sign the card?
SALAAM: I signed the card. They presented that card at trial.
DAVIES: How long were you held and questioned?
SALAAM: Wow. The initial questioning period, it was one of those moments where you can't remember time. I remember coming in in the evening, how long, how many hours passed. I just remember in the morning, we were taken from one precinct to the next. And so you can imagine if that happened at sundown, if they picked me up and it was, say, 7 p.m., 8 p.m., all the way to and through the next morning, whereas Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson had been arrested that night. So we were arrested, myself and Korey, on the 20 of April, and Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana were arrested on April 19 of 1989. They had been interrogated since they were arrested.
DAVIES: So in some cases, 24 hours or more for these guys?
SALAAM: Yeah, or more.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, this is a case where, if I have this right, four of the five of you - everyone but you gave detailed confessions to participating in a crime that they had nothing to do with. You did not, right?
SALAAM: That is correct. That is correct.
DAVIES: Right. And, you know, a lot of people just have a hard time understanding why anyone would ever confess to a crime with a made-up story that put them in the middle of this horrible act that they had nothing to do with it, that how would you - why would you ever, under any circumstance, agree to this made-up story? Can you help us understand how that happens to these guys?
SALAAM: You know, as I see it, in this made-up story, these false narratives - right? - that became part of this false confession - I remember when I was there with Korey, hearing him getting beat up in the next room. I remember hearing him yell out, OK, OK, I'll tell you. And he made, if I'm not mistaken, four completely different confessions - four completely different ones. And the one that he implicated me in they played at my trial. And all we wanted to do was go home. This was a nightmare. We were delirious with hunger. We were delirious, you know, because time was passing, and we didn't know what time it was - you know, just a whole nightmare of the whole situation.
And I think what happens is, after a certain point, you break. And in the breaking point, you say anything that will allow you to get out of that. I remember listening to Raymond Santana's confession, his false confession, and he accurately described this process in such a powerful way, where he said, they gave me the options. They showed him a photograph and said, this woman was beaten very badly. She had to be beaten with something. What was she beaten with? And he didn't know because he wasn't there. And he said, come on, it had to be a brick, a rock or a pipe. They gave him the options. I remember hearing his false confession at trial, and it was the most craziest thing that people believed in 1989. Here he is, being made to say, at approximately 1900 hours, me and a group of my colleagues began to walk south. Now, the wording might not be exactly that, but it's something that's so outrageous.
DAVIES: Not something a teenager would ever say, right. Right, right.
SALAAM: Right. And he looks up in the documentary, "The Central Park Five," and says, what 14-year-old boy talks like that? And I remember being in the movie theaters while people were watching that scene in particular, and the gasp, the audible gasp, that you heard in the room was as if they had, for the first time, revealed that they had been tricked.
DAVIES: You mentioned that everybody wanted to go home. Were you told, tell us the story and you can go home?
SALAAM: I was. I was. And every time I told the story, every time I told everything that I knew about the events that night, they kept saying, was this when the jogger - was this when you got the jogger? Was that when you got the jogger? And I didn't know anything about a jogger, so I couldn't say yes or no. I said, I don't know anything about a jogger; I'm telling you what I saw.
DAVIES: Did you ever, in your despair, make up a story as the others did, or - let's say - adopt the story that had been suggested, that you participated in this attack?
SALAAM: I did not.
DAVIES: OK, so you hung on, and then your mom eventually showed up - right? - and said, you can't be talking to him.
SALAAM: Yeah. Yeah. She told me - and she told me something that's very important. And I think that - the thing that she told me is something that I tell people often. She said to me, stop talking to them. And then she said to me, they need you to participate in whatever it is that they're trying to do; do not participate, refuse. And for me, it was one of the most powerful learning tools that I could ever imagine because here I was, on my own, being told to stand my ground and being told, in many ways, that it's on me. I can't come into the room with you. I can't fight for you. You have to fight for yourself. But I need you to know that whatever you do, they're trying to get you to participate in your own destruction.
DAVIES: You know, one thing that's - people may not realize is that after the other four were talked into agreeing to the story about what happened, how they had participated and-or observed in the Central Park jogger's attack, they then did this on a videotape. And when these were played in court, they began not with them describing the things but with the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, calmly, patiently explaining to each of the kids, you have a right to remain silent; do you understand? Yes. You have a right to an attorney; do you understand that right? An attorney can be provided if you can't afford; do you understand this? All of them agreeing, which I think leant so much more credibility, I guess, for the jury - like, why would they say all that if it wasn't true?
SALAAM: In New York, one of the things that we fought for is for the whole of the custodial interrogation to be recorded, and the reason why we wanted that to be recorded is that, in the Central Park jogger case, when the jury saw this false story being presented in front of their eyes in such a pretty package - wow, you have the prosecutor reading the Miranda warnings, and you have these culprits agreeing, and then they tell this story.
And mind you, the story is not factual in any way, form or fashion. The forensic scientists know this, but yet they went forward. They went forward and presented this in front of the jury. And the jury were made to believe that what they were seeing was true, that these false confessions were actually real confessions. You know, OK, well, maybe they got some of this stuff mixed up because maybe they didn't remember exactly where it happened, what happened, how it happened. But the forensic scientist had a photograph of a drag line, and in the drag line, there could not have been a gang rape.
DAVIES: This is where the jogger was dragged off the trail into the woods, and it's a very narrow line.
SALAAM: It's a very narrow line showing only the assailant and the victim.
DAVIES: Yeah. Right. And if it were a gang rape, then a lot more grass would have been trampled, right?
SALAAM: Well, not only that, I think that had that photograph and had the descriptions been fair, like, had we lived in a truly just society, then we would have been afforded the opportunity to have a proper defense mounted. The system would have said, well, this is what we found, and some of our findings are misleading. But then that would be the system working (laughter). The system is actually working exactly as it was imagined.
DAVIES: All that said, I mean, there were contradictions among the statements. There was, you know, no physical evidence tying any of you to it. You were offered a plea deal but didn't take it because you weren't going to admit to something that didn't happen. Did you think that the jury would render the verdict it did?
SALAAM: I didn't. I thought that the jury would see through all of the lies. Up until the last moment, I had tremendous hope. I was on bail, and I remember someone running up to me - I was on the phone with a friend of mine, and I remember someone running up to me, they got the verdict; they got the verdict. And I told the person, hey, they got the verdict. I'll see you in a little while. I'll be right back. I'll be home. And I didn't come back until seven years later.
DAVIES: You were immediately taken from the courtroom in cuffs, yeah.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you here. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Yusef Salaam. His new memoir is "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Our guest, Yusef Salaam, is one of five African American and Latino men who were convicted as teenagers in the so-called Central Park jogger case and later exonerated when DNA evidence confirmed the confession of a serial rapist who said he'd committed the crime alone. Salaam has a new memoir called "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice."
You were - you know, you were incarcerated in several different facilities, some juvenile facilities, and then eventually in Clinton, which I guess - is that an adult facility? Yeah.
SALAAM: It is.
DAVIES: Did other inmates know who you were? What was that like?
SALAAM: They did. They did. I think all throughout our case, there was a knowledge of who we were. You know, we had - there was - it was very difficult for us to hide, right? And I'm saying hide because we wanted to. We wanted to be anonymous. But we had been convicted of this heinous crime. We had been vilified in the media. Over 400 articles were written about us within the first few weeks. And our faces were on every single front page of every newspaper in New York City for a very, very long time.
So by the time we got to prison, the inmates had already known who we were. It's one of those moments where you're told the worst crime that you can go to prison for is rape. The only crime that trumps rape is child molestation. And then you feel all of the tension, all of the negative, every vile idea, you feel that. And you're walking through that in these prisons. And here are killers around you. Here are rapers around you. Here are child molesters around you. And they want justice. They want to do to you what you have been convicted of. Very, very difficult, very sad situation to be in.
DAVIES: You describe something called playing the wall early on. You want to explain that term?
SALAAM: Yeah. Playing the wall just means that you back yourself into a space where you know that you're protected because what's behind you is a physical wall. And from that wall, from that vantage point, you get the opportunity to look around and see everything. You no longer have to look behind your back because the wall is your back. The wall has you protected. And so you're there able to observe everything. And then you can move or you can run or you can flee at any moment based on what's going on.
DAVIES: And then you describe a big guy named Guzman (ph) - right? - coming up to you. What happened?
SALAAM: Yeah. You know, I'm in the day room on a special unit - a special housing unit for inmates who had been convicted of heinous crimes. And I remember being in a state of hyper-vigilance and then finally being kind of a little bit more comfortable, saying, well, maybe it's OK. Maybe things will be all right, and then getting very comfortable. It felt like my grandmother's chair. I'm in the chair and leaning back and just, you know, just trying to get comfortable. And all of a sudden, my head moves from one side to the next. And I'm not even aware that I had been hit or assaulted. And officers get up, you know, fairly quickly. And the officers are on this man, this guy who looks like the kingpin whose name is Guzman.
And I remember one of the most dehumanizing things is that after you're assaulted in prison, they usually bring both people, the person who assaulted the person and the person who was victimized together. And they want them to talk. OK, why did you do this? OK. Will there be any retaliation? You're so afraid of this situation that you've been placed in. You don't really know what to do. You know, it was - you want this person to be taken away from you. You want to be out of harm's way.
DAVIES: You were 16, right?
SALAAM: I was 16 at the time, yeah.
DAVIES: When something like that happens, I'm sure it really makes you very, very aware of your surroundings. And you spent seven years kind of in this state. Does it - is that a permanent sense that you just are hyper-aware of everything around you because of that - spending all that time having to be so vigilant?
SALAAM: It is. It is a condition of being a prisoner of war, that you will forever remain in the state of hyper-vigilance, you may mask it very well as you try to live life and try to live more comfortably with your family. But it's always there lurking in the background. It's something that almost becomes a safety net because you've, like I said before, had the rug pulled out from underneath your feet. And you're constantly looking to make sure that, every step you make, the rug is no longer pulled out.
DAVIES: One of the most amazing things that you mentioned is that your mom managed to figure out a way - and I guess this is while you were in the juvenile facility a couple of hours from New York - to get into the prison and cook for everybody who was held there.
SALAAM: Yeah. That was such a cool thing. Often it happened around Thanksgiving. And, you know, she had created this organization at the time called Mother Love. And a lot of the other inmates who were part of this kind of growing circle were able to participate. And so they would come in as well. And they would provide, you know, services to the community. And for me, it wasn't until, like, a little later that I said to myself, man, you know, my mom is making sure, one, that I'm OK. And on the other hand, she's ensuring that I'm safe because I'm the cook's son.
SALAAM: Yeah. I mean, and the food was so amazing. I mean, you go from eating unrecognizable oatmeal - at least that's what they're calling it - or unrecognizable powdered eggs that may still have some of the powder on it until - and then you're eating, you know, food from a five-star restaurant.
DAVIES: The real deal, yeah.
SALAAM: A real deal, stuff that - and this is the other thing. The officers allowed the inmates to take food back to their cells.
DAVIES: When your mom came, you mean?
SALAAM: When my mom came. We could take like a second plate. We could, you know, I mean, we still had plastic forks and utensils, so it wasn't like they were giving us metal knives or anything like that. But, you know, we could take the food back to the cell. We could take sweets and cakes and pies and stuff like that back to the cell with us.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me introduce you. We are speaking with Yusef Salaam. His new memoir is "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Yusef Salaam. He's 1 of 5 African American and Latino men who were convicted and then exonerated in the so-called Central Park jogger case. He has a new memoir called "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice."
It's kind of hard to grasp that when you went through, you know, the arrest and the trial and the conviction, you were 15, 16. And now, when you come back and reexperience this, you're all young men in your 30s. And you've been dealing with this trauma through all these years. And you write in the book that there were times that you would have to do it through a kind of detachment, to think of this is happening to a third person named Yusef. And you say you need to let the wounds scar over and eventually heal. Can you give us a sense of where you are in that journey today, healing from this?
SALAAM: Yeah. I think there's been a tremendous - we've been able to make leaps and bounds in our healing, in our adjustments into society, but at the same time, it's still there lurking in the background. You know, the awful experience that we should have never gone through is really always the cloud over our heads, right? But the cool thing about it is that we now know how to deal with those emotions. We now can say this is how you get through any prison that you may be going through, whether you're physically in bondage or not - right? - making the choices that are meaningful, you know, taking the time to breathe, you know, meditating, creating vision boards. All of those things are necessary. You know, they say the imagination is the precursor of what's to come.
And so if you can imagine a future that is brighter than the one that you're growing through - and I'm saying growing through on purpose, because when you get to that point, you realize that you're not just going through something, but that you're being prepared for greatness, that you need to know the lows in order to appreciate the highs in life. And I think that when I look at my story, you know, being able to look at it from the outside gives me the tremendous opportunity to describe in full what it is that I had gone through. And then going back in and being a participant in my growth and development is important because you have to marry those two things together, you know. And it's that that causes you to step forward with tremendous hope in the future, with tremendous faith in the future, knowing that it can only get better and not get worse.
DAVIES: I want to note that, in the interest of thoroughness, that the head of the sex crimes unit at the DA's office at the time of this prosecution in 1989, Linda Fairstein, has sued Netflix and the producers of "When They See Us" claiming that the depiction of her was inaccurate and defamatory. Netflix says that lawsuit is without merit. It is under litigation. And then there are some of the police officers and detectives from the time who have disputed parts of the documentary. And if people are interested, there's plenty of material online to read that if they're interested. What I wanted to ask you was, have you had any personal contact with any of the prosecutors or police who were involved in this case?
SALAAM: We have not. We have not. You know, we have - in some ways have had interaction with police officers just as a part of the overall, you know, police force. But the individuals that were involved in this particular case, no, we have not. There were moments, however, though, that we came into the deposition rooms, and those individuals that were being deposed were there. But as far as personal interactions, no, they all sidestepped that.
DAVIES: And well, you know, this was very intense and personal at times, right? I mean, you were cross-examined on the witness stand by Elizabeth Lederer of the prosecution. And she was, you know, ripping into you because that's what people do on cross-examination. What feelings do you have today towards the police and the prosecutors who were involved in this?
SALAAM: The overwhelming feeling that I have towards the police and prosecutors is that they knew that we had not done this crime. They knew it, but yet they chose to move forward. They built their careers off of our backs. And the law of karma caught up to them. And they never imagined that they would have to contend with these crimes that they committed because these are crimes. They're supposed to be the upholders of law. And they have things like prosecutorial immunity, but they were involved in prosecutorial misconduct. No one wants to be in a situation where the people at the highest level in life are the ones who are the most criminal. We want those people to be the most upstanding. They have to hold that truth in their minds and hearts as they move in the justice system because they're changing people's lives.
And as it relates to the Exonerated Five, our lives were forever changed. Like, we can never - we will never know what our life would have been like had we not gone through this horrible experience. But here we are choosing a different outcome. We choose to be better and not bitter. In terms of life, we choose to be successful and not be leeches in terms of life. And I think that that right there is the most important part. But at the same time, the people who are supposed to protect and serve you, the people who are supposed to uphold the law, it is criminal when they do the exact opposite of that.
DAVIES: You know, there was a wrongful prosecution lawsuit filed after the exoneration, after the conviction was vacated. It was filed in 2003. Not until 2014, 11 years later, was there a settlement and some monetary compensation paid. In the meantime, you had to make your way in the world, right?
DAVIES: You managed to find employment before you got into motivational speaking. What did you do before that?
SALAAM: Yeah. I was in IT. technology. You know, we were - myself, I worked in health care, dealing with wireless networks. It was a really liberating and awesome experience because it was something that I knew how to do. And it gave me the opportunity in that community to psychosocially matter. You know, if I would come into a space and they would say, hey, all of the mice in this, you know, workspace are broken, can you fix it? And I would not just figure out how to fix it, but I would give them back a mouse. You know, it's funny 'cause you talk about mice today, people might be saying to themselves, what is he talking about?
DAVIES: Right, the mice in...
SALAAM: You know, even the televisions are touch screen, you know?
DAVIES: The electronic mice - right - we're talking about, yeah.
SALAAM: Yeah, electronic mice - the wired one that still had the ball attached to it. And the greatest thing was that because I cared about giving them quality material back, they would call me back and say, hey, can you send the tall guy, you know, the guy that always wears suits?
DAVIES: You were the tall guy.
SALAAM: 'Cause I would always wear suits to work.
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. Right.
SALAAM: Yeah. You know, I was always preparing myself to try to be the best that I could be, to really show up in a way that was meaningful, not necessarily just for them but also for myself.
DAVIES: We should note that you're married. I guess you had an initial marriage that didn't work out, but you remarried. You have six daughters. Do I have this right?
SALAAM: Six daughters, and it's a blended family of 10 children. You know, when my current wife and I met each other, we became the Brady Bunch instantaneously. You know, she had two boys and a girl, and I had three girls. And then as we began to grow our family, we had two more girls come out. And for those who are familiar with TV, some people would say, eight is enough (laughter). And we - you know, we knew that - they claim three times is a charm. And so another daughter was born to us. And, you know, it was the coolest thing in the world because I know that - you know, women in particular give birth to nations. But my hero, Malcolm X, is the father of six girls, right? And so here I am, in the same vein, same line as my hero, saying, wow, this is the coolest thing in the world.
And I remember the last child that was born to us - my wife had gone into labor. And we were in the hospital around my birthday. And I remember her saying, you know - she was like, oh, man, I know we should be on the beach somewhere. She loves going to the beaches in Jamaica and the Caribbean. And she said, we should be on a beach celebrating. And she said, you know, but we're here; oh, man, you know, I'm sorry. And I said, no, this is great; this is actually a blessing. And what I didn't know was that the last child that we have together was a boy. He came out on my birthday.
DAVIES: How about that? Wow.
SALAAM: And that was the most amazing experience, you know? Yeah.
DAVIES: There's a TED Talk that people can find online that you do in Sing Sing prison. What was it like to reenter a prison after all these years?
SALAAM: Going to Sing Sing was a very challenging experience because you never forget the clanking of the bars when they close them behind you. And it's one of those moments where you immediately feel that you're back in purgatory. And you look around, and you say to yourself, they do know that I'm a guest here, right? You know, you want to make sure that they release you after the day is over. And that was only quelled by going into the room where we were going to be presenting and looking over and saying, wow, that's Ice-T with his wife over there. Or, you know, you see Hill Harper and say, oh, man, Hill Harper is in the room. Wow, OK, well, maybe I will be able to get out of here. And you kind of calm down a little bit, get your nerves and your emotions intact and present.
And it was a liberating experience, right? I think that was the first time that I was able to truly talk about being forgiving of the people who had vilified me and what that meant and what that continues to mean. You know, you have to be able to forgive so that you can cut yourself from the ball and chain that's holding you back. It has nothing to do with the individual who harmed you, but everything to do with yourself.
DAVIES: When you were in prison, were there people there who were role models?
SALAAM: There were. I mean, I met people who were members of the Black Panther Party, people who were members of the Black Liberation Army. They were definitely some really great role models. You know, a lot of the elders in the community, they did things that you hear about or that you may have seen in prison movies, where they'll take someone under their wing and say, hey, listen; read this book. It's going to help you. I'll never forget - some of the greatest advice that people gave me were from people who were never coming home teaching us and telling us how to make sure that we stay home, what types of things that we needed to keep in front of us - you know, getting gainful employment, trying to find meaningful relationships and getting married and having children. Those were great examples for me to live by.
DAVIES: Yusef Salaam, thank you so much for spending some time with us.
SALAAM: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Yusef Salaam's new memoir is "Better, Not Bitter: Living On Purpose In The Pursuit Of Racial Justice."
Coming up, Nick Quah reviews a new podcast series about Eddie Gallagher, a former Navy SEAL accused of committing war crimes during the battle for Mosul in Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.
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