Prison Letters From a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row

15 October, 2021
Tiyo Attallah Salah-El with historian Howard Zinn in an undated photo,

Excerpts from Pen Pal: Prison Letters From a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row

Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, edited by Paul Alan Smith
Or Books (Sept. 2020)
ISBN 9781682193044


Tiyo Attallah Salah-El died in 2018 on “Slow Death Row” while serving 43 years of a life sentence in a prison system he detested but, through a mixture of intelligence, strength, and irrepressible joie de vivre, somehow man-aged to transcend.

He was a man with a dizzying array of talents and vocations. An 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 a half that make up Pen Pal, an extraordinary correspondent. Tiyo’s missives present a vivid picture of the tribulations faced by those incarcerated, especially the nearly 60 percent who are non-white: habitual racism, arbitrary lockdowns, brutal beatings and repeated hospitalizations. 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 racism 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 an extraordinary free spirit.


While incarcerated in the State Correctional Institute (SCI) at Dallas in Pennsylvania, Tiyo earned both an undergraduate and graduate degree (in African American history and political science, respectively); because of its work in criminal justice reform, Tiyo engaged with the Religious Society of Friends, eventually becoming a member (even though he had converted to Islam years before), and hosting its meetings in the prison. He openly supported gay rights activism after meeting a contact at the Boston weekly Gay Community News, despite the dangerous pressure it invited. He organized jazz groups and performances in the prison, and founded the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons (CAP). Perhaps his greatest satisfaction was helping fellow prisoners learn how to read and write, facilitating a forbidden prisoner-to-prisoner education system, which in turn evolved into both law classes and GED programs. All the while, Tiyo was an avid correspondent with many intellectuals, activists, journalists, and artists. Thanks to Howard Zinn, I was lucky enough to be one such correspondent. —Paul Alan Smith




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. —Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, May 14, 2004


Tiyo Attallah Salah-El

February 25, 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, & 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” have 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, Tiyo
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 lockdown and the searching of cells by the black-uniformed SWAT 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 degrees?” 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 an MA 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 it’s 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 me and my Quaker friends who guided him here. You can now see your lifelong 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 lifelong friendships. Stay Tuned!

Warm hugs and much love, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El

July 29, 2004

Yo Pablo! Thank you for your inspiring soulful letter and the ass-kickin’ notes re: my story!! You have moved me to make a confession. Why I decided to hold back on the true emotions, anger, hate, violence, the shooting of a cop, the fights, the killings I witnessed in prisons, the beatings I took from guards, the assistance I gave to prisoners who escaped, the reasons I moved out when my father left, how the killing and seeing dead bodies in Korea stayed in my mind for years and when in fights I would not feel the punches hitting my face and body, how and why people became afraid of me, how and why I became involved with the sale of guns etc. How I supplied certain doctors, lawyers, politicians with women and how I sometimes had sex with their wives. There is so much shit I experienced you may not think highly of me. You’ll also learn that it was the son of my sister Hazel who set me up after I saved his life. You’ll learn the way I had speak to a group of prisoners who wanted to rape a young white kid who is sentenced to “life” and is new to prison life. There is much not so nice things to tell (write) you about. Just thinking about it fucks me up. I am not at all proud of myself. I’m ashamed of my stupid crazy actions. I’m sure people will hate me with a passion and will rejoice when I’m dead. I’m amazed that I’ve lived this long. My sister Bette is my lifelong champion. She has saved my life many many times. I love her very much. You’ll learn how she protected me, cared for the wounds on my body, would not allow the police to kill me. She would give par-ties for the guys in the bands I played with—man, she is a true giant! Recently, she had a stroke and can’t talk. She knows that she may soon die. I’m fucked up about that. I want to complete the book before she dies. I want her to know that at long last I’ve become a nice person. The type person she said I would one day become. Let me explain why I do not use the phones. The phones are tapped! No more need be said. Nor do I accept visits. I refuse to be stripped searched going to and returning from a visit. Out of my love and respect for Bette, Monty Neill, Howard Zinn, and Bev & Wally, I accepted their visits one time only! I explained my reasons to them and all is well. They understand my position on these issues. Nor do I have money. At present I think there is $3.82 in my account. The above-mentioned folks are kind enough to send money via money order that enables me to buy toilet articles, long underwear, socks, boots, etc. and to pay when I go to “sick call”. They are the ones who collectively purchased a sax for me and a typewriter, radio and TV. I’m being up front with you about everything. I want to remain your friend. It is your decision to stay or not stay the course with me. This is truly a crazy type letter—no real structure, no paragraphs etc., just hard facts of the truth! I’m not going reread this letter. It’s from my gut. Bypass the mistakes, rough printing, etc. and look for and see/find my heart and soul in these words. I’ll chill until I hear from you and learn that it’s okay to continue moving forward with our friendship.

Best wishes, Tiyo

Relay my greetings and some hugs and rubs to your cats!

Note from the Editor of Pen Pal, Paul Alan Smith

I produced this book, not for Whitey, per se, but for the class of folks who say they give a shit about morality and yet know NOTHING about what really goes on in prisons. It was for them! This book was (and remains) VERY unique, in that it allows the reader to organically befriend a truly extraordinary, solid cat in prison and go along a 14-year ride with him. He is so entertaining, so kind, so erudite, that my hope is folks would put it down and say to themselves, “What the fuck is happening in these prisons?? And why was this man still there??!!!” I wanted them to experience what I did, just as one might from a great piece of theatre. And while I get “white gaze,” it really wasn’t that. (And I bet my life that Tiyo would agree!) It was more “privileged gaze.” And to reuse a word: unabashedly!!! So while black folk understandably don’t want white folk editing their work, their point of view, that concept shouldn’t have superseded the objective of the book! It wasn’t germane. I wanted it to go to folks who KNOW not a soul in prison. Ironically, for the very reason I wanted the book out there, MOST BLACK FOLKS DO! And why? Cause they are disproportionately put there, and usually for reasons I was hoping to illustrate subtextually! True, there is a majority of white folks in jail, but they are ALSO poor! Point is, it wasn’t about race, as anyone who reads it quickly discovers. It is about two completely different guys who become super close friends. Yes, one of us could travel the world, throw parties, sleep with women, while the other was left in a cage to only imagine such things. But the twist is the guy in the cage was farrrrrrr more chill, far more giving, far more wise, far more resolute, far more caring. The fact that he was Muslim and I Jewish ONLY came up in a socio-political context. The fact that I had bread and he didn’t ONLY came up in a socio-economic context. The fact that I was white and he black ONLY came up to joke over stereotypes. So while the BLM movement and the #Metoo movements are necessary and essential, they are spawning off (inadvertently) dogmatic folk who periodically leave a deleterious affect on some things, like imagination, collaboration, trust, due process, art.

Buy this book, and share it with your friends!


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