A new book from entertainment professional Paul Alan Smith has been receiving widespread praise from book lovers and social activists alike. The book, Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row, is comprised of letters from his friend and prison abolitionist, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El. The letters, written while Salah-El was serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison, span the 14-year length of their friendship and help paint the portrait of an innovative and compassionate thinker. Below, we’ve highlighted some excerpts from the book to familiarize readers with the work and unique voice it serves to celebrate.
Friendship at a glance
Paul Alan Smith, who’s donating his royalties from the book to the WEB Du Bois Library, has characterized his relationship with Salah-El as both eye-opening and highly rewarding. The two were first introduced by a mutual friend — the noted historian Howard Zinn — and built up their friendship through years of letter writing. By the time of Salah-El’s passing in 2018, he had written a total of 568 letters to Smith, with topics including the realities of prison life, thoughts on social activism, humorous asides, and much more.
The entertainment professional felt compelled to share a selection of these letters with the world after witnessing the power set by Salah-El’s example. Though he certainly suffered during the length of his incarceration — from harsh prison conditions, illness, and loneliness, to name just a few sources of his distress — he chose to repeatedly return his focus to his work and the good he was doing in the world. Smith has been vocal about the effect his friend’s work on prison abolition had on him and his hopes for how it can affect others.
“My hope is that readers can come to a new understanding of prison reform in a way that’s reminiscent of good political theater,” says Smith. “You’re so engaged with the story, you don’t realize what you’re taking away until you leave the theater.”
Work in education
One of the things that becomes apparent about Salah-El as you read his letters is the level of respect he held for education and the access to opportunity it could bring. Not only did he earn both his B.A. and master’s degree while in prison, he also helped many others receive their GED. In one letter in the book, he recounts the experience of having fellow inmates seek out his tutoring help:
“There are approximately 2,000 men here. Only eight percent have a high school education or GED. Whew! Amazing, eh? There are men who can bench press 300 or more pounds and squat big-time pro weight but cannot read or write.
Last week guys began coming to me requesting help in learning how to read and write because they are too embarrassed to sign up for basic education classes. Although I’m inundated with a shitload of work and problems it is difficult for me to refuse to help the guys.”
Salah-El ended up not only tutoring those seeking help, but also creating a program through which inmates who have received their GED could then tutor others to help them in the same manner. Of the 280 men who entered the program, 242 earned their GEDs. Salah-El would go on to write a handbook about the work so that similar programs could be set up at other prisons.
Though much of the book focuses on the work accomplished by Salah-El and his tireless motivation to create change in the world, his letters also provide an authentic look at the difficult realities of life in prison. One source of difficulty, as we find, is his feelings of disconnection from family members, especially his beloved sister, Bette. In one letter, we see his grief over not being able to support her in-person through a serious illness:
“My sister Bette remains in bad shape, bedridden at home and being taken care of by her youngest daughter Odetta… Odetta lives there with her male partner who oftentimes physically and sexually abuses her… Odetta has become an alcoholic and heavy smoker and who knows what else. She called this prison leaving word for me not to send letters or cards to Bette or have any of my friends contact her regarding Bette. Need I mention what effect that had on me?”
Celebration of life
Though it takes us on a journey through some of the most difficult aspects of Salah-El’s time in prison, the book from Paul Alan Smith is, ultimately, a celebration of his friend’s life. A leader in the prison abolition movement, a staunch defender of education, and a keeper of the peace for his fellow inmates, Salah-El’s example serves to inspire throughout the book’s pages. The genuine affection between the two men is equally apparent, making the book not only an instructive look at the life of an activist, but also a commemoration of friendship and the power of the human spirit.