Prison reform activist Yusef Salaam discusses incarceration and spirituality in Family Action Network event

Yusef Salaam sits and smiles at a glass table in front of a brick wall.

Photo courtesy of Family Action Network

Yusef Salaam, who was convicted and later exonerated in the Central Park jogger case. Salaam spoke with Professor Reuben Jonathan Miller about his experience being convicted and later exonerated in the Central Park jogger case.

Alex Harrison, Reporter

Motivational speaker and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam discussed his time incarcerated and his spiritual motivation during a Family Action Network event Thursday.

Salaam was wrongfully convicted and later exonerated in the 1989 Central Park jogger case , in which he and four other then-teenage boys were accused of assaulting a woman. 

He recently published his memoir “Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice,” which details his upbringing and the lessons he learned from his fight for exoneration. The event was held in conversation with Reuben Jonathan Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

Salaam started by discussing the first line in his book: “They didn’t know how they had” — a line he said is applicable both to the court that convicted him, and to himself. 

“I needed to know who I was, where I was, why I was,” Salaam said. “I didn’t know who they had, and they most certainly didn’t know who they had.”

Salaam said at the time of his arrest, the public didn’t know who he was, either. He recalled how in the weeks after his arrest with the four other boys — then known as the “Central Park Five” and now commonly called the “Exonerated Five” news outlets across the country published over 400 articles about them. Salaam said none of those outlets approached the Exonerated Five or their families to ask for comment or their perspectives.

During his time in prison, he strengthened his relationship with Islam after learning about the origin of his name, Salaam said.

“As I read the story of Yusuf Alaihissalam in the Quran, and Joseph in the Bible, I received a spiritual nourishment,” Salaam said. “I don’t believe myself to be a modern-day Yusuf, peace be upon him. But reading those stories and connecting them to my own helped me realize that Allah’s miracles have not stopped.”

Salaam said he began to write poetry after experiencing this spiritual realization, which grounded him.

Miller said he resonated with Salaam’s spiritual inspiration in prison, focusing most of his questions on this spiritual element of Salaam’s story. He recalled a quote from an organizer and colleague he believes applies to Salaam and his work.

“He said, ‘Every interaction is an opportunity for an encounter with the divine,’” Miller said. “You pushed his work in that way. Every interaction allowed you to live with greater purpose, to find greater and deeper purpose.”

Salaam ended the event by connecting his past experiences and lessons to his current work as a motivational speaker. 

He said he hopes to show others how a grounded spirit can act as a tool for liberation.

“I needed to utilize my story in order to tell other people that they too can go free,” Salaam said. “The light that you have inside of you will begin to illuminate not only the darkness inside of your own self, but more certainly the darkness around you.”

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