To a packed audience in Sage Chapel, Yusef Salaam — a member of the falsely imprisoned “Exonerated Five” — spoke about his experiences with incarceration, faith and criminal justice reform.
“I want[ed] people to know that when you find yourself in so-called dark places, there’s always a light somewhere in the darkness,” Salaam said, who was wrongfully convicted over two decades ago.
In 1989, five young black and Latino men, aged 14 to 16 years old, were jailed for the assault and rape of 28-year-old Trisha Meili. The group, then known as “The Central Park Five,” included then-15-year-old Salaam.
The prolonged police interrogation after their arrest yielded false confessions that comprised much of the prosecution’s case in the ensuing trials, which led to all five teenagers being found guilty.
Following his conviction, Salaam spent over six years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. He, along with Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, were exonerated in 2002, when DNA evidence instead linked the crime to Matias Reyes, who confessed that he acted alone in the act.
Salaam spoke to the audience about the difficulties of his six-year incarceration, first at a youth facility, and then, beginning at the age of 21, in upstate New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility, where he said he “got a college degree in one of the most damned places in the world.”
Becoming a public figure after his release from prison presented challenges for Salaam. The nominal shift from “Central Park Five” to “Exonerated Five” was more than a simple legality. It involved years of struggle against the role of media in amplifying the case’s faulty conclusion.
“When we were guilty, over 400 media reports came up within the first few weeks,” Salaam said. “When we were found to be innocent, it was a whisper that she [Salaam’s mother] wondered if the rats of New York City had heard.”
The talk spotlighted the issues of the prison-industrial complex and systemic racism, which Salaam compared the treatment to slavery.
“Why is it that you’re telling us that slavery was abolished, yet you’re saying slavery is alive and well if you get punished for a crime,” Salaam explained. He elaborated, “[the] system is not alive and well … it’s alive and sick.”
When asked what advice he would give to an audience member interested in advancing criminal justice reform, Salaam referenced the words of Santana, a fellow member of the “Exonerated Five.”
“We can’t just say that we’re going to fight this system on the outside looking in, some of us have to go into the system and fight from the inside as we look out,” Salaam said.
Speaking to the power of unity, Salaam noted that “children of former slave owners and children of former slaves are beginning to realize the power in unity to break the system that is not broken.”