Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five on prison reform and his new book “Punching the Air”

From prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a new YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated.

Video Transcript

YUSEF SALAAM: We're crying out for things like Black Lives Matter, because all life doesn't matter to the establishment. The establishment somehow said it's OK for you to be down here and for us to be up here. This book, "Punching the Air," is the beginning of a conversation. It is the answer, in a way, to the trials of today.

We know that we need equality. And we know that we're not getting that. I want us to have the conversation about change. We're looking at how the world is responding to the oppression of today.

I met Ibi Zoboi, my co-author for the book, "Punching the Air," back in 1999. We were both students at Hunter College. Years later, we met each other again. I was pushing my book "Words of a Man-- My Right To Be." This is actually my book of poetry that I wrote while I was in prison.

As she read the words in my book and realized that it was inspiration, we thought about how can we tell the story of injustice? How can we talk about the criminal justice system? How can we effectuate change?

And that's when we launched this idea of "Punching the Air" with the character Amal, who could be anyone. Even though this is the story of a young man going into the prison industrial complex, experiencing injustice, it is not my story. The inspiration behind telling the story of Amal is the stories of all of the oppressions that we've all seen.

I've often said that the story of the Central Park jogger case is not an anomaly. They want people to believe that this is just a one-off. We just got it wrong this one time.

They don't even admit that they got it wrong. To admit that they got it wrong is to speak to the humanity of us as a people. And so now, how do we get it right? How do we utilize these cases to figure out why we shouldn't get it wrong?

When I think about the criminal justice system and I think about reform, for one, I would change the whole thing. I would absolutely ensure that they give back the ability for people to get educated in the prison-industrial complex. Those individuals who get educated, they never come back to prison because they realize they have more options than one. I think one of the last things I would change-- I would ensure that people who have paid their debt to society are given their full citizenship back so that they can fully participate in society, in community.

When I think about the current leadership, I don't want to give value to 45. I'm like #NotMyPresident. He could say stop treating people unfairly. He could say we need to change the system positively.

I think that tremendous throng happens when people in positions of power don't use those positions to change everything that they can. We haven't been unified by him. And I maybe-- you know, I don't even want to address his connection with the Central Park jogger case and the Exonerated Five. I'm talking about just him as a person, his ability to be the change that he should be, but to still be in the same space that he's always been. His past performance is predicting what he's going to do in the future.

So the biggest message that I want folks to take away from "Punching the Air" is to never give up hope. One of the things I often think about imparting, especially to young men of color, and, really, young people in general, is that they matter. God said you, you. He wants you to be. And you made it.

And in that being has to be the understanding that you've been chosen. You've been chosen to do something special. There's greatness that's inside of you.