Ian Manuel and Yusef Salaam came together for a special event in the On America series to discuss matters of crime, punishment, and racial justice. Both men released memoirs in May 2021, revealing aspects of their time in prison and the injustices that led to their convictions.
In My Time Will Come, Manuel, who was sentenced to life in prison at just fourteen, reveals his perspective on the heartbreaking and difficult path to reducing his sentence through Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. Salaam’s inspirational memoir Better, Not Bitter recounts his seven years of wrongful incarceration as one of the Central Park Five and the lessons and principles he has learned to survive the worst of life’s experiences.
Sarah Burns, director of the documentary film The Central Park Five, moderated the event.
This event was presented in partnership with Youth Justice Network.
My Time Will Come
By Ian Manuel
Published by Pantheon
The inspiring story of activist and poet Ian Manuel, who at the age of fourteen was sentenced to life in prison. He survived eighteen years in solitary confinement—through his own determination and dedication to art—until he was freed as part of an incredible crusade by the Equal Justice Initiative.
“Ian is magic. His story is difficult and heartbreaking, but he takes us places we need to go to understand why we must do better. He survives by relying on a poetic spirit, an unrelenting desire to succeed, to recover, and to love. Ian’s story says something hopeful about our future.” —Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences thirteen- and fourteen-year-old offenders, mostly youth of color, to life in prison without parole. In 1991, Ian Manuel, then fourteen, was sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide crime. In a botched mugging attempt with some older boys, he shot a young white mother of two in the face. But as Bryan Stevenson, attorney and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has insisted, none of us should be judged by only the worst thing we have ever done.
Capturing the fullness of his humanity, here is Manuel’s powerful testimony of growing up homeless in a neighborhood riddled with poverty, gang violence, and drug abuse—and of his efforts to rise above his circumstances, only to find himself, partly through his own actions, imprisoned for two-thirds of his life, eighteen years of which were spent in solitary confinement. Here is the story of how he endured the savagery of the United States prison system, and how his victim, an extraordinary woman, forgave him and bravely advocated for his freedom, which was achieved by an Equal Justice Initiative push to address the barbarism of our judicial system and bring about “just mercy.”
Full of unexpected twists and turns as it describes a struggle for redemption, My Time Will Come is a paean to the capacity of the human will to transcend adversity through determination and art—in Ian Manuel’s case, through his dedication to writing poetry.
Better, Not Bitter
By Yusef Salaam
Published by Grand Central Publishing
This inspirational memoir serves as a call to action from prison reform activist Yusef Salaam, of the Exonerated Five, that will inspire us all to turn our stories into tools for change in the pursuit of racial justice.
They didn’t know who they had.
So begins Yusef Salaam telling his story. No one’s life is the sum of the worst things that happened to them, and during Yusef Salaam’s seven years of wrongful incarceration as one of the Central Park Five, he grew from child to man, and gained a spiritual perspective on life. Yusef learned that we’re all “born on purpose, with a purpose.” Despite having confronted the racist heart of America while being “run over by the spiked wheels of injustice,” Yusef channeled his energy and pain into something positive, not just for himself but for other marginalized people and communities.
Better, Not Bitter is the first time that one of the now Exonerated Five is telling his individual story, in his own words. Yusef writes his narrative: growing up Black in central Harlem in the ’80s, being raised by a strong, fierce mother and grandmother, his years of incarceration, his reentry, and exoneration. Yusef connects these stories to lessons and principles he learned that gave him the power to survive through the worst of life’s experiences. He inspires readers to accept their own path, to understand their own sense of purpose. With his intimate personal insights, Yusef unpacks the systems built and designed for profit and the oppression of Black and Brown people. He inspires readers to channel their fury into action, and through the spiritual, to turn that anger and trauma into a constructive force that lives alongside accountability and mobilizes change.
This memoir is an inspiring story that grew out of one of the gravest miscarriages of justice, one that not only speaks to a moment in time or the rage-filled present, but reflects a 400-year history of a nation’s inability to be held accountable for its sins. Yusef Salaam’s message is vital for our times, a motivating resource for enacting change. Better, Not Bitter has the power to soothe, inspire and transform. It is a galvanizing call to action..