Book review by David Gilbert

Letters of life from slow death row

A review of ‘Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row’ by Tiyo Attallah Salah-El

by David Gilbert

This inspiring book consists of a selection of 92 of the 568 letters prisoner Tiyo Attallah Salah-El sent out to Paul Alan Smith over the course of 14 years – just one of Tiyo’s richly engaging correspondences. From this book, one can learn a lot about the realities of prison and see a stellar example of a wonderfully productive life despite all kinds of obstacles and feel the passion for social justice.

Tiyo was incarcerated in 1975 in Pennsylvania, where 60 percent of prisoners are Black or Latinx. “Pen Pal” is not about his case. We only learn in passing that it involved drugs, guns and murder and that he is ashamed of the person he was.

Tiyo was sent to SCI Dallas, a prison built to house 950 but holds 2,480. He was placed on “slow death row,” the unit for 453 lifers, with little or no chance at all for parole. Pennsylvania holds 5,370 such people. Tiyo remained there until he died in 2018 at the age of 85. 

On slow death row, Tiyo formed deep friendships with Phil and Delbert Africa of the revolutionary Black liberation and environmental MOVE organization. Mike Africa Jr., the son of two other MOVE activists who each did four decades in prison, wrote the touching preface to this book.

Tiyo Attallah Salah-El was an activist, scholar and humanitarian, working hard from behind bars to expose the ugly realities of life in prison. Through his correspondence with historian and activist Howard Zinn, Tiyo met the Hollywood agent Paul Alan Smith, with whom he began a 14-year correspondence memorialized in “Pen Pal.”

While “Pen Pal” is not at all an effort to provide a detailed picture of prison life, Tiyo’s various passing references give readers a better sense of the realities than I’ve been able to do even with direct descriptions. We feel life in a 5-by-8-foot cell, where you never sleep next to a loved one, where you feel the cold before the heat gets turned on Nov. 1 and the high 90 degrees when the block bakes in July. 

There’s the censorship, whereby Tiyo couldn’t even receive a book on prison abolition that included one of his essays. There’re the frequent lockdowns when you are in your cell for the duration, eating peanut butter sandwiches and hoping that the SWAT team doesn’t trash your cell too badly. 

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