Pen Pal


With a Preface by MIKE AFRICA, JR.

"Tiyo Attallah Salah-El's exemplary life (without parole) is testament to the human spirit and the cause of abolition... Inspiring.” —David Gilbert, Black Agenda Report

“Between the lines, these letters attest to the transcendence of inner freedom; the poignance of love amidst despair; and the triumph of atonement.” —Connie Rice

“Remarkable.” —Harry Belafonte

“A knockout.” —Paul Laverty

“One hell of an entertaining read.” —Dave Zirin

“Shocking and poignant.” —Nomi Prins

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Carl Weathers is an American director, actor, and entrepreneur.

Adam Arkin is an actor and director, living in Los Angeles.

Listen to a preview: Carl Weathers reads Tiyo Attallah Salah-El's letters and Adam Arkin reads Howard Zinn's.

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About the Book

Tiyo Attallah Salah-El died in 2018 on “Slow Death Row” while serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. He was a man with a dizzying array of talents and vocations: author, scholar, teacher, musician, and activist: he was the founder of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons. He was also, as is apparent from the letters written over a decade and half to his friend Paul Alan Smith that make up this book, an extraordinarily eloquent correspondent.

Tiyo’s missives present a vivid picture of the tribulations faced by those incarcerated, especially the nearly 60% who are non-white: habitual racism, arbitrary lockdowns, brutal beatings and hospitalizations, stifling heat and bitter cold. Here too are descriptions of Tiyo’s individual struggles with cancer, aging, and the sirens of personal demons.

Tiyo’s refusal to succumb to such hardships is evident in dispatches that are generous, philosophical and often laugh-out-loud funny. Through them we learn of his many friendships, including those with the historian Howard Zinn, a range of activist/advocate supporters on the outside, and two fellow people in prison who were leaders of the Black liberation group MOVE.

At a time when the appalling racial bias of America’s police and criminal justice system is under the spotlight as never before, Pen Pal is both a vital intervention and moving portrait of someone whose physical confinement could never extinguish an extraordinary free spirit.

240 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-304-4 • E-book 978-1-68219-305-1

About the Author

Tiyo Attallah Salah-El author photo

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Tiyo Attallah Salah-El served a life sentence, primarily in the State Correctional Institute at Dallas in Pennsylvania. He was the founder of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons, the author of an autobiography, and a teacher of law and GED classes in prison. He died in prison in 2018. His papers are archived at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Read an Excerpt

Feb. 25th, 2004

Dear Mr. Paul Alan Smith,

Thank you for your letter and special thanks to you for being a good friend of Howard Zinn. Howard and I have been close friends beginning in 1982. He helped me complete my Master’s degree in Poli Sci. He is one of the most amazing men I’ve met during my 72 years on this good earth. He came to visit me at this prison and also wrote about me in one of his many books, viz. You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. I love him muchly. He takes excellent care of me. I shall contact him and inform him regarding your interesting, informative and delightful letter!

I thought it best to send some materials to help with introducing myself. Should you have questions or the need for specific personal information I’ll be happy to respond.

At present, I am inundated with legal actions in both State and Federal courts, Re: prisoners being forced to give blood to be stored in a DNA bank for future checks/investigations. I’m also trying to SAVE some men and women on death row. I am housed on what is called “slow death row”, e.g. “life sentence”. Two brothers of the MOVE Organization are here with me, along with 72 other black, white, and Latino men. *There are over 2,000 men at this prison. I’m also trying to help “lifers” in the state of PA (in PA “life” means just that, LIFE!) In the meantime, I try to relax by listening to, writing and playing music.

My friends such as Howard Zinn, Monty Neill, Bev & Wally Williams, Mecke Nagel, (see enclosed materials Re: these good people), send books, money for typing paper, pens, typewriter, radio, sax, keyboard, etc., but most of all, they send incessant strong love and inspiration. Without such support I would have been completely lost or dead. I invite you to contact each of the above mentioned people.

Should my printing be a problem for your reading, let me know. I will gladly type letters to you. I would like you to return the enclosed pictures. The other materials are yours to keep.

Although I live in a 5’x 8’ cage, I am a free spirit. The “state” & “criminal justice system” has often attempted seal my lips & mind. I am well aware that I may soon die in this cage. When? My view of death can be summed up in three words “Life goes on!” I have a lot to complete in so little time. Whew!

Again—thanks for taking time to write to me, and big hugs to you for being a friend of Howard Zinn. He is one hell-of-a-dude! (plus he is smart as hell)

Greetings to your family and friends.

Peace, Justice & Love,

P.S. I’d like to learn more about you.
*Please excuse rush of this letter. I’m trying to catch the guard coming to pick up today’s mail. Stay tuned!


May 14, 2004

Dear Paul,

Welcome home from your first vacation in years! I’m glad to learn that you are well rested, eating and sleeping better and enjoying the solitude and freedom from courtship of a female. It’s good you made time for yourself and to slow down and nurture calmness and to make room for new ways of seeing old problems. After all, no one is living your life for you and no one’s care for you could or should replace the care you can give to yourself.

The tardiness of my response to your letter is due to the two day lock-down and the searching of cells by the black uniformed S.W.A.T. guards. We were stripped searched and cuffed to the cell doors as they trashed the cells. I keep a neat, clean cage, e.g. my books, clothes, toilet articles, pictures, letters, paper, pens, tablets, etc. are organized. I am listed as a “political educated trouble maker!” They smiled and laughed as they ransacked my things. One guard attempted to bait me by asking the other guard, what do you call a black man who has undergraduate and graduate degree’s?” The other guard said, “a smart nigger!”

During the past twenty-eight years of incarceration I’ve learned the value of differentiating between reacting and responding to the pain of prisons. I’ve had to learn how to handle myself under all kinds of stressful conditions. In my view, the issue of self-control is central to coping with the problems and pain of prisons. I’ve captured something positive about the human spirit’s ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to find within it room to grow in strength and wisdom. For me, facing the full demeaning punishment of prison means finding and coming to terms with what is most in me. There is not one person on the planet who does not have his or her own version of pain, and problems. I do not mean total disaster. Rather it means the poignant enormity of our life experience. It includes crises and disaster but also all the little things that go wrong and that add up. It reminds me that life is always in flux, that everything we think is permanent is actually only temporary and constantly changing. This includes our ideas, our opinions, our relationships, our jobs, our possessions, our creations, our bodies, everything. I refuse to allow racist guards and the corrupt criminal justice system to rob me of my self-determination and self-empowerment, or my hope and spirit. In my view, the storms of life will strengthen us as they teach us about living, growing, and healing in a world of flux and change and sometimes great pain. I’ve learned to see myself and the world in new ways and to work in new ways with my thoughts and feelings and perceptions, and to laugh at things a little more, including myself, as I practice finding and maintaining my balance as best I can. (see enclosed cartoons and related material). In short, I feel more in control, even in very stressful situations that previously would have sent me spinning out of control. I am handling the entire range of life experience, including my much sought after death by the criminal justice system, much more skillfully. The pain has not stopped but my attitude toward the pain of prison has changed a lot.

It was Howard Zinn who helped me get in touch with my own inner strength and his believing in me and not giving up on me and teaching me the tools for making such a huge transformation in my life. It has been over twenty-years since I met Howard. He not only guided and inspired me and helped me earn a M.A. in Political Science, he came to this prison to visit me. We hugged, laughed and talked about many things. He wrote about our visit in one of his books, You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train. He worked magic on my mind! He is a very special human being and I love him very much.

Gee whiz, so far this letter has become a written catharsis for me. I guess I’m trying to convey that although its been a rough and tough week for me, I want you to understand that in my heart of hearts there is joy as well as suffering, hope as well as despair, calm as well as agitation, and incessant love.

Enclosed is the first of my many gifts to you. It is a negative of Howard and I and my Quaker friends who guided him here. You can now see your life long friends, viz. Howard Zinn and Tiyo. A motley bunch of older guys if there ever was one.

I’ll always stay in touch. I tend to make life-long friendships.

Stay Tuned!

Warm hugs and much love,
Tiyo Attallah Salah–El

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