Most people understand that the realities of life in prison can be harsh, but the extent to which that is true can sometimes escape those who have not experienced it firsthand. Now, Paul Alan Smith is helping to shed new light in this area with the release of a new book — Pen Pal. The book is made up of letters from his late friend and prison reform activist Tiyo Attallah Salah-El. Below, we’ll take a look at the book, and also an informed review of its contents created by someone currently imprisoned in New York state.
To better understand the context of the new book from Paul Alan Smith, let’s first look to the life of its subject. Before his death in 2018, Salah-El was known for a variety of accomplishments that helped propel his uniquely impactful life. A veteran of the Korean War, he was often singled out for his athletic abilities and musical talents. After being sentenced to life imprisonment in the Pennsylvania prison system, he set his mind on bettering himself and engaging in actions that would help inform his activism from within prison.
Due to these efforts, Salah-El was able to develop his formal education, receiving both a B.A. and a master’s degree. He also became a prolific writer, penning essays, letters, and books, including an autobiography. Eventually, he channeled his activist spirit towards the cause of prison abolition. Proceeding forward with a deep conviction that the goals of society and the criminal justice system were not being served through the use of prisons, he founded the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons.
This work helped the activist catch the attention of many in the field of social justice, including the late historian Howard Zinn. Zinn was a mentor and professor to Tiyo and his admiration for the activist is evident throughout their correspondence, such as when Zinn, told Salah-El “when you leave this earth you know you will have contributed to the moral development of future generations.”
Salah-El’s collected writings are archived at the WEB Du Bois Library, to which Smith is donating all of his book’s royalties.
Reactions on prison life
The book has received widespread praise in reviews since its release. One such review that has helped cut to the core of the book’s value comes from David Gilbert. With many viewing his incarceration since 1981 as being politically motivated, Gilbert has emerged as another prominent figure in the prison reform movement. He has praised Pen Pal for the manner in which it portrays the nuance of many prison hardships.
“While Pen Pal is not at all an effort to provide a detailed picture of prison life, Tiyo’s various references in passing give the reader a better sense of the realities than I’ve been able to do even with direct descriptions,” writes Gilbert. “We feel life in a 5’ by 8’ cell, where you never sleep next to a loved one, and the cold before the heat gets turned on on November 1, or the high 90’s when the block bakes in July.”
More info on David Gilbert at http://friendsofdavidgilbert.org/
Characterization of activism
Gilbert also heaps praise on Salah-El for the victories he managed to achieve while in prison.
“Tiyo’s accomplishments from inside that 5’ by 8’ cell — despite all the lockdowns, prison violence, and his health issues, which became increasingly severe as he aged — are nothing short of spectacular,” notes the activist.
He goes on to highlight some of the accomplishments that get discussed amidst the 92 letters that make up the book. They include not only Salah-El’s work in prison abolition, but also his efforts to disrupt prison violence, organize in-prison shows, and to contribute to the education of other prisoners through tutorial programs.
Perhaps one of the things that will linger longest with readers of Pen Pal is the tender and genuine friendship showcased between Salah-El and Paul Alan Smith LA. The letters, which span the course of their 14-year friendship, highlight not only their mutual respect and affection, but also the willingness with which Salah-El lends emotional support to his friend. In one telling example, the activist writes to Smith telling him “I am hurting deep within the marrow of my bones because I know you are hurting due to the passing away of your father.”
These displays of warmth along with examples of his passion for his work ultimately form what the book’s creator hopes will be an engine for change in society. He’s noted in the past that his own views on prison reform and abolition were forever changed through his relationship with his friend. His aspiration is that readers will similarly be drawn in by the humanity portrayed in the book and the genuine nature of Salah-El. As they continue to read, he believes they may just find their views on criminal justice and the prison system changing in the process.