IN THE EARLY 2000s, historian Howard Zinn introduced his film agent, Paul Alan Smith, to his friend and former student, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, a prisoner sentenced to life who, while behind bars, had transformed himself into a scholar, a pioneering activist against mass incarceration, and a mentor to many fellow inmates. The two men became friends and pen pals, and over 14 years they exchanged 568 letters. Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row, published by OR Books in August, is a selection of Tiyo’s side of the correspondence. 

The voice and spirit that come through are indelible — angry, wise, mournful, contemplative, resilient, hilarious, profane, and above all deeply honest and caring. Tiyo dissects the everyday physical and emotional indignities of prison life, while also examining the political system that undergirds it. He manages to laugh at the cruel absurdity of his daily existence at the same time as he articulates his rage and weariness. The story that emerges in the letters is an intimate act of defiance. And if you like audiobooks, the audio edition of Pen Pal, read by Carl Weathers, will stay with you as vividly as Tiyo’s written words.

Tiyo passed away in 2018 — an enormous shame, since he didn’t get to see his letters in print or know how perfectly they are now landing in our boiling cultural landscape in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and so much else. In lieu of speaking with Tiyo, I interviewed Mike Africa Jr., who wrote the preface to Pen Pal. Africa is the son of two members of the MOVE organization, a Black activist group based in Philadelphia that was violently targeted by the police, an assault that culminated in 1985 with the Philly PD dropping a bomb from a helicopter on a MOVE house, killing six adults and five children. By this time, Africa’s parents were already in prison, where they would spend 40 years; Mike himself was born there. Two members of the MOVE organization whom Mike was close to served time in the maximum-security prison SCI-Dallas in Pennsylvania alongside Tiyo Attallah Salah-El. Mike and I discussed the intersection of his world with Tiyo’s. – Aaron Shulman

Read the interview here.

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