NEW YORK (CBS Local) – Yusef Salaam was only 15 years old when his life changed forever. Salaam was one of the members of the group formerly known as the “Central Park Five,” and the New York native went to prison for more than six years for a crime he didn’t commit.
Today, Salaam tours the country telling his story and the work he believes needs to be done to reform the criminal justice system.
On April 19, 1989, a woman named Trisha Meili was jogging in Central Park, where she was assaulted and raped. Salaam was one of the five teens charged and convicted for the crimes. In 2002, the convictions were overturned and the group of men involved with this case would go on to be re-dubbed as the “Exonerated Five.”
“I was a child full of hope, full of dreams, and full of aspirations that hadn’t yet been realized,” Salaam said in an interview with CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith. “I was 15 years old and not able to start dreaming yet. I was given a bitter pill to swallow and that bitter pill was, ‘I’m taking all of your dreams and replacing that with prison life and all of the things that come around with that.'”
Salaam said he held out hope that he wouldn’t go to prison until he heard the guilty verdicts in court.
“You have a hole that can’t be filled,” he said. “Even to this day, there’s a hole and an empty space that can’t be filled. Only those people who have gone through the prison industrial complex understand. We have this secret understanding just in a look: ‘You know what I mean and I know what you mean.’ The biggest struggle was trying to adjust. All of the things that you knew that were normal was stripped from you. You had to be dehumanized in order to move forward and survive.”
A whole new generation learned about Salaam and his friends that went to prison in Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix docu-series “When They See Us.” Salaam hopes this helps people understand what prison is really like.
“We see a glimpse of that in part four as we visit Korey Wise and his story. When I saw that with my brothers and Ava DuVernay pulled me aside and she said this is the TV version,” said Salaam. “Imagine how tragic and devastating. I can’t thank Ava DuVernay enough. She has a shirt and it says, ‘I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.’ I think that provides hope for the future. That tells us that the future is alive and well.”