New York City

Slamming the System: A Q&A with Yusef Salaam of the Central Park Five

One of the “Central Park Five,” convicted of beating and raping a white female jogger in 1989, Yusef Salaam was exonerated in 2002 when a confession and DNA evidence proved the crime was committed solely by another man. Thus began a bitter civil case resulting in a more than $7 million settlement with New York City, which Mayor Bill de Blasio called a “moral obligation to right this injustice.” Salaam is being honored this month with the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Social Justice Advocate Award for his work speaking against inequality in the justice system.

Salaam spoke with City & State’s Jeff Coltin about how police use confessions and whether Rikers Island is worth reforming. The following is an edited transcript.

 City & State: The documentary about your case, “The Central Park Five,” points to serious problems in the way that police get and use confessions from suspects. What was that experience like for you? Do you have any sense of whether the NYPD or law enforcement in general has implemented a better or fairer approach?

Yusef Salaam:  My case is the clearest example of why we need videotaping of interrogations. Whenever they have arrests and things of that nature, they need to videotape them from start to finish. When you look at the false confessions that were gathered in my case from four of five guys – and then 13 years later figuring out that none of the stuff matched – it’s like, whoa, how did we as a system drop the ball in this particular case?

Have things gotten any better? I don’t necessarily think so. I think the visibility is better, especially now that we have a greater ability to use technology for our own surveillance purposes. But once we get into the clutches of the system, we’re at their mercy. Some cops are good, some cops are bad. We hope that we get the ones that are decent enough to do the right thing as opposed to the ones who just want to win at all costs and don’t care who they hurt in the process.

C&S: You’ve supported bills that would mandate the recording of police interrogations, but the issue has stalled in Albany. What do you think is keeping it from passing?

YS: I’m not 100 percent sure. It’s all a process. But part of it is that we have to keep that pressure on from the people in the street. Once they see that there’s a number out there that are calling for the same exact thing, we have a certain amount of power if we come together and are unified. If we let it fall, then it’s going to fall. But if we pull it up and say, what about this, what about this, then that’s how things get passed, in my opinion.

C&S: Is the criminal justice system, beyond saving? Or could we reform it?

YS: I am of the very staunch opinion that the system itself is criminal. And I say that because, when you look at my case, my case being a microcosm of the macrocosm of other cases that are not famous, that no one knows, but that happen all the time, my case shows very clearly that you could be 100 percent innocent but you have to prove yourself innocent because of the color of your skin. You’re brought in, and the color of your skin is an indictment against you. That shouldn’t be the case, but that is the case oftentimes.

That being said, the system itself, from the ground up, the whole system has to change. I’m not the type of person that will say that we don’t need systems of checks and balances – those checks and balances being the legal system or some type of justice system. But what we have today, and what we see it being an outgrowth of – and when I say outgrowth, when we look back and we go all the way back to the Constitution of these United States, it states that we are three-fifths of a man. It states that you will be reverted back to a state of slavery if we put you in the prison industrial complex. The only people that really speaks to are people of color. It’s a theory about what that means, but people of color have a direct history of what the slave codes were, of what being a slave was all about. And whether that means that that was in the distant past, or in the present, it’s very, very real. And the part that’s unfortunate, like I said, is we want a system of checks and balances.

C&S: A period of your imprisonment was on Rikers Island. You’ve said that you believe over half the population at Rikers is innocent of a crime of which they’re accused. What can be done to reform that institution? Or because it’s a systemwide issue, do you think that Rikers needs to be knocked down and something new built up?

YS: If we’re going to look at Rikers and Rikers alone, and use that as an example, then I would say yes, that system has to be knocked down, and something else has to be put in its place. You know it’s unfortunate, because when you look at Rikers itself, there’s too many loopholes. There’s too much of an ability for someone to still do you very grave harm. And when you look at the prison industrial complex and the penal system, the people who run the system, they want it to be punitive. It used to be that you were brought to jail and it was the correction that happened in that time that would allow you to return to society a better person. But that’s not happening anymore.

When you look at Kalief Browder, who was put on Rikers Island for assuming that he stole a backpack, we look at his case as a very poignant example, but there’s a whole host of people who are going through the same thing. And they’re not being treated in any fair way. They’re being treated very ill. The worst part about it is that you’re put in a situation where if you’re not a criminal, now you’re with real criminals. You’re with people who may really want to do you harm. Korey Wise (another one of the Central Park Five) was on Rikers Island with the guy who was ultimately found to have raped the Central Park jogger. He was on Rikers Island with the East Side rapist. And this is a person who not only raped women, but ultimately killed his last victim while she was pregnant. It’s those kind of things that when I look at them, I say, wow, is this the type of justice system that we want? Is Rikers Island the best that they can do?

These things don’t happen in other people’s communities. There’s a far different type of way that policing happens. There’s a far different type of place that people are placed into. Sometimes people are put in a holding cell and just told, hey, let’s cool off, think about your mistakes, you don’t want to be here and we don’t want to put you here so therefore we’re going to let you go, but we need to leave you here so you can understand the magnitude of what could have been your fate. The Kalief Browders of the world don’t have that same pass. They’re not given that pass to get out of jail free, so to speak, or to be given another chance at a brighter future.

C&S: You’ve been out of the criminal justice system for years, but you’ve also had a long fight in the civil justice system, suing New York City for compensation. What differences have you seen in the way you’re treated?

YS: It’s really something. But the best thing is, it gave us our humanity back. It gave us this sense of being people who were wronged by the system. So therefore there were peeks into the other side. But when I say peeks, I mean sometimes you don’t get an opportunity for the people who are fighting against you for the city to physically say to you, hey I’m one of the people that am very sorry for you having gone through this, I actually believe that you are innocent and I wish that I wasn’t the one having to fight you on this. But sometimes you get that sense from the way that people talk to you, that people respond to you, or look at you. You realize that they’re looking at you as a human being again as opposed to a monster.

Back in 1989 we were these “urban terrorists,” as Mayor Dinkins incorrectly labeled us, same way that they label anything that goes on today. Unfortunately the president himself labeled the people when they were uprising in Baltimore as “thugs.” When people get their humanity back and they’re called “Mr. Yusef Salaam” or “sir” or “how’s everything going” and when people hold open the door for you and they try to look out a little bit more, because they try and understand that you weren’t an urban terrorist, that you weren’t a thug, that you actually were trying to fight for your life and for your rights and for your humanity, it begins to be something very important. So that kind of duality in terms of being able to see the old and the new, the way that they treat us now and the way we were treated back then, is a very interesting kind of point to be made.

One of the worst things to happen to us was that there was a speedy way to convict us. And I submit that there should also be, when you find that people were put in prison for crimes that they did not commit, that there should be a speedy way to compensate us. The people who are wronged in those cases shouldn’t have to go through a long, drawn-out process just to receive some justice. They should be able to be compensated fairly quickly. And in a better way than many of us are.

C&S: You’ve endorsed Keith Wright for Congress. Why do you think he’s right for the district?

YS: I have a personal relationship with Keith Wright, and I also have a personal relationship with Bill Perkins. And both are wonderful folks. I actually was asked by Keith Wright, would I endorse him, not knowing that Bill Perkins was going to be running as well. But when I look at the history of Keith Wright, and I think about who he is in the context of history, who his dad is in the context of history – his dad being called ‘Cut ’Em Loose Bruce’ – he’s a very powerful person, a very strong advocate that you want to have on your team. When I look at what the future could be in the hands of a person like Keith Wright, I think it would be a great future. We would have a better chance – not that we would have a better chance than with Bill Perkins – but we would have a far better chance with a person who’s in your corner like that. My personal experience with both men is great. It just happens to be that I endorsed Keith over Bill Perkins not realizing that they were both fighting against each other! I said to myself, man, we should be able to endorse both! If either one of them would win I’d be happy. Very, very happy. Those are two princes of Harlem.