The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Archive: 19/11/2020

The UMass Amherst Libraries share news of the publication of Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row by Tiyo Attallah Salah-El. Pen Pal was published in October 2020 by the independent press OR Books, and all author royalties will be donated to the Libraries, where Tiyo’s papers are housed in Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA).

Born in 1932, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El died at 85 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, composer, and activist, as the founder of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons. He was also, as seen in the letters he wrote over a decade and half to his friend Paul Alan Smith that make up this book, an extraordinarily eloquent correspondent.

Tiyo’s letters vividly capture the tribulations endured by those incarcerated, especially the nearly 60% who are non-white: habitual racism, arbitrary lockdowns, brutal beatings and hospitalizations, stifling heat and bitter cold. They describe Tiyo’s individual struggles with cancer, aging, and the sirens of personal demons. Yet, despite crushing hardships and indignities, Tiyo’s positive energy shines through, in dispatches that are generous, philosophical and often laugh-out-loud funny. We learn of his many friendships, including those with the historian Howard Zinn; a range of activists, advocates, and supporters on the outside; and two fellow people in prison who were leaders of the Black liberation group MOVE.

“We began working with Tiyo in 2006 to document his life, activism, and experience in prison,” says Acting Head of SCUA Aaron Rubinstein. “The voices of people in prisons are rarely heard, and Tiyo’s contribution to the prison abolition movement has never felt more timely. We are thrilled that Tiyo’s story can be known by so many people, and the donated royalties will support digitization of Tiyo’s collection and related work with our social change collections.”

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

Pen Pal contains a preface by Mike Africa, Jr., and the audiobook, released simultaneously, features the actors Carl Weathers and Adam Arkin, among others.

For more information about Tiyo Attallah Salah-El and his papers:

For more information about Pen Pal, including how to order a copy: