Yusef Salaam is a member of “The Central Park Five,” a group of young Black and Hispanic teens convicted of raping “The Central Park jogger” in 1989. DNA evidence later proved the group of 14, 15, and 16 year olds innocent, but only after each spent at least seven years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. The city of New York settled with the Central Park Five in 2015, and their story has been documented in the documentary film “The Central Park Five,” by Ken and Sarah Burns. Here, he speaks on the death of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial for a crime he was never convicted of.
I tend to skim social media for headlines and move on to the next story pretty quickly, but when I came across the tragic story of Kalief Browder I had to read every word. I don't usually do that. But in this case, though it was very hard to do, I felt like it was very necessary.
One of the things that stuck out to me [about his arrest]: he was handcuffed. The officers still slammed him to the ground. It really broke my heart because you think about all of the injustices that people can go through, and here, in this country, we have a teenager going through this [and ending up in] a torture camp, so to speak.
Here he is in a hopeless situation. You don't really know which way is up or which way is down. And at the same time, you're getting beat up, you're getting no help. They put Kalief behind a so-called "locked" metal door. One inmate was able to kick the metal door open and then all of the sudden you have the other inmates ran through and continued to beat him.
When I was arrested, I felt like my life was over. There was no presumption of innocence. The fact that I was a suspect in a horrific crime, and a person of color, was enough to seal my fate. People are swayed by what’s reported in mainstream media believing it to be the truth. There were a lot of problems with the Central Park Jogger Case, many of which were ignored by the jurors who decide one's fate. "The system" as a whole is guilty of creating the imbalance of justice. I call it "the Criminal System of Injustice" for that reason.
It used to be that prison was a correctional institute. That you would go somewhere and get your behavior corrected so that you could become a productive citizen in society. Here you have an individual who was languishing in prison for a crime that he may not have even committed. Never went before a judge, never got the opportunity to stand trial. Three years go by and he's still in this same situation, the same unfortunate situation where he's not only getting beat by officers, but he's getting beat up by the inmates.
I was on Rikers Island briefly as a teen, and my stay on the Island was not pleasant. In fact, for us it was dangerous. They used to poll the inmates to find out what would they do if they got their hands on any of the Central Park Five.” See, inmates have their own way of dealing with that kind of atrocity. Going to prison for a crime like rape is the worst crime that you can go to prison for, only trumped by child molestation. And on Rikers Island, or any prison, nothing goes down without the officers allowing it.
But how did Kalief even get there? I'm willing to go on record to say that I believe that over half the inmate population is innocent of something that they are accused of.
A lot of times, those in prison are told, "Hey, just cop out. You know, you've already been in here for a year, this crime, if you cop out, it only will give you fifteen months or something like that, or you'll only have to do a year and a half or something." You know you didn't commit this crime, but you want to get out of there, you want to go home. What happens? Now you have a record.
But many people return back to society worse off than they were when they went in. There's a lot of people that I knew who were in prison who thought that the better option for them was to kill themselves. There was a lot of people who wanted to wrap a sheet around their neck, which Kalief Browder tried to do many times, and take their lives because it was too hard to deal with the reality that this is how you have to live and you don't know when it's going to end.
When you get out of prison you're basically a nobody. You don't even have an identity, you're invisible to everyone. Sometimes you're even invisible to your family because when it comes down to it, you need so much help, you need so much assistance and everybody's life is moving forward, everybody still has to deal with their own problems and their own issues. When you have something that's so serious that a person is willing to take their lives, that's level critical. That's not something a person should play with at all.
The system is broken. The system was designed to make sure that those who need the most help, those who need the most assistance, get none of it. Those who can't pay the parking tickets get the most parking tickets. When you think about the stuff that they did with "Stop and Frisk" and programs of that nature, these individuals who can't afford to really benefit from the law, and they are the ones who are the recipients to lawlessness.
The lawlessness is coming from the people who are there to protect us. They just think, "I've got to get a quota, I've got to meet my quota, so therefore I'm just going to pull people over for some stupid stuff. Hey! You looked like you were going to use your cellphone." Stuff that just doesn't even make any sense, but for them it makes a whole lot of sense. When you try to address that in the court, you realize that there is no justice, which causes me to always say that this is a criminal system of injustice.
Prison is a part of the system. It's the whole system that needs to be dismantled, the whole system that needs to be reevaluated. The best people to fix it are the people that are affected by it – the inmates and prisoners who have no voice.
Kalief was, I'm sure, feeling like he was living in a nightmare. I'm sure this young man didn't feel like he had any hope, didn't feel like he had any opportunity, didn't feel like at the end of the day even though he was able to start going back to school, and even though he met some folks that really gave him sparks of opportunity, sparks of wanting to do better and be better, at the end of the day, that wasn't enough. He needed so much more.