The subject of police violence has been a hotly discussed issue in recent times. While the topic deserves plenty of recognition, there is another lesser-discussed issue related to criminal justice reform that many feel is also in need of public discourse — prison reform. Now, a new book created by Paul Alan Smith, Pen Pal, is helping to do just that. The book, comprised of letters from his friend and noted prison activist, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, has been earning praise from a wide range of sources. We’ll look at some of those responses below to get a better idea of the book’s impact.
The letters that make up the new book from Paul Alan Smith, whose royalties will go to support the WEB Du Bois Library, stretch back through the 14 years of his friendship with Salah-El, while the latter was serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. A veteran with a talent for music and athletics, Salah-El made an impact on many people he met throughout his purpose-driven life. Part of this was due to his magnetic personality — on full display in the text — but much of it is also based on his hard work in the prison abolition movement. The respected historian Howard Zinn noted Salah-El’s achievements in a 2009 letter to the activist.
“You have lived a good life,” wrote Zinn. “You have done amazing things from the confines of your imprisonment. You have organized a movement for the abolition of prisons, you have had your ideas spread across the nation and across the globe. You have contributed to the education of your fellow prisoners in a very practical way. You have inspired countless people by your example of what one person can do against enormous odds. So when you leave this earth you know you will have contributed to the moral development of future generations.”
Reception by prison activists
Salah-El’s letters in the book help to paint a picture of the warm and generous spirit for which his friends knew him. His humor and wit jump off the page and the genuine nature of his friendship with the book’s creator is more than apparent. The wisdom of his stance on prison abolition is also evidenced on the page, drawing praise from a number of people connected to the criminal justice reform movement. One such person is Amanda Knox, an exoneree, journalist, public speaker, and author. Her experience of being falsely accused and imprisoned by the Italian criminal justice system has contributed to her high-profile place in the prison reform movement.
“One of the things that makes this book really special is that it shows that a human being is many, many things at the same time,” said Knox. “Tiyo himself was many, many things. He was a veteran, he was a musician, he was a criminal, he was an educator. His life became dedicated to abolition, the idea that the world would be a better, more just place without imprisonment. A lot of people might assume that anyone in prison, everyone in prison, is likely an abolitionist, but I promise that’s not the case.”
Another activist in the criminal justice reform movement, David Gilbert, a prisoner whose incarceration has been referred to as “political” by many, had praise for the book. He noted its ability to both highlight Salah-El’s accomplishments and touch on the realities of life in prison.
“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 the activist. “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… Tiyo’s accomplishments from inside that 5’ by 8’ cell… are nothing short of spectacular.”
For his part, Paul Alan Smith appreciates the praise the book is drawing from readers. He’s noted that his friend had a deep impact on his own way of thinking about the criminal justice system and he wants those who come to the book to pull away similarly profound revelations.
“My hope is that readers can come to a new understanding of prison reform in a way that’s reminiscent of good political theater,” says Smith. “You’re so engaged with the story, you don’t realize what you’re taking away until you leave the theater.”
Ultimately, that may be why the book is resonating with so many readers. While parts of the book touch on the life’s work of Salah-El, which is intimately tied to the prison abolition movement, the story itself is told through the friendship and tenderness that developed between the two men. The result is an endearing read that leaves the reader with plenty to think about upon its completion.