“This missive will cover a wide range of topics, some serious and sane, others insane and ludicrous.” Such were the words of the late prison activist Tiyo Attallah Salah-El in a letter to his close friend, Paul Alan Smith. The letter, along with many others from the social reformer, is included in Smith’s new book, Pen Pal: Prison Letters From a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row. The book serves to celebrate the life of the activist, including his fierce sense of justice, his generous spirit, and his quick wit. Below, we delve further into the book and the life of Salah-El.
The book, whose royalties Paul Alan Smith is donating to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library where the activist’s papers are housed, spans the 14-year length of the duo’s friendship. Written while Salah-El was serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison, the book’s letters help to introduce readers to the activist’s extensive work in the prison abolition movement. One of his crowning achievements in this area was his formation of The Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons, an organization intended to help bring about the end of prisons through education and targeted reform of the criminal justice system.
The book’s creator has spoken at length about the effect his friendship with Salah-El has had on his own life and his views about the prison system. Those views were so strongly shaped by the activist’s work that he felt compelled to bring it to a larger audience.
“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.”
Life in prison
While not a focus of the book, Salah-El’s letters do help to better acquaint the reader with the hardships of life in prison. The writer presents these not to draw sympathy or as a complaint, but rather to lay bare the inadequacies of a system he considers to be out of step with our collective values pertaining to justice.
In one letter, we catch a glimpse of the brutal manner with which these hardships occur within the prison while also witnessing the activist’s knack for instilling a sense of peace in his surroundings. The passage details the plight of a young newcomer to the prison, who was being targeted by another prisoner for a planned sexual assault. Salah-El stepped in to broker a peace between the two inmates and prevent the assault from taking place. He mentions his role in the event with no sense of boasting, but merely as an observation of the ever-present difficulties encountered within the prison’s walls.
Talents and work
We do, however, still get a sense of the extraordinary character of Salah-El through the many events he relates from his everyday life. With further study, we find that his exceptional aptitude was apparent from a young age, such as during his high school years when he was known as a talented athlete and musician. After school, he served in the Korean War. There, he encountered more than his fair share of adversity yet still represented his country admirably.
During his imprisonment, the activist built on his personal legacy of achievement through educational efforts on behalf of himself and others. While in prison, he earned both his B.A. and Master’s degree. He also became known as a prolific writer and thought leader, helping inspire fellow inmates to pursue their own education.
In this realm, he helped to set up a GED tutorial program where prisoners could study with him to earn their degree and then pass that help along to others. The program helped more than 240 inmates in his prison receive their GED. He later wrote a handbook on the work so that similar programs could be instituted at prisons around the country.
While the merit of the program is clear and Salah-El’s generous character shines through in its administration, his mention of it in his letters are filled with his telltale humor.
“Crazy-ass me has begun teaching the ABCs of reading and writing, parts of speech, basic grammar, spelling, etc,” writes the activist. “The men have offered to pay me in fruit, sandwiches, milk, juices, wash my clothes, and clean this cage. I GLADLY ACCEPTED THE OFFERS! I may be simple but I ain’t totally crazy as of yet.”
True to the hopes of Paul Alan Smith, it is perhaps Salah-El’s kind, funny, and wholly unique soul that becomes the focus of the book. While we become engrossed in his strength of character, his vision of change for society slowly starts to integrate into our own thinking. The result is a text that provides nourishing food for thought and, in the activist’s tongue-in-cheek words, covers “a wide range of topics, some serious and sane, others insane and ludicrous.”