IN THE EARLY 2000s, historian Howard Zinn introduced his film agent, Paul Alan Smith, to his friend and former student, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, a prisoner sentenced to life who, while behind bars, had transformed himself into a scholar, a pioneering activist against mass incarceration, and a mentor to many fellow inmates. The two men became friends and pen pals, and over 14 years they exchanged 568 letters. Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row, published by OR Books in August, is a selection of Tiyo’s side of the correspondence.
The voice and spirit that come through are indelible — angry, wise, mournful, contemplative, resilient, hilarious, profane, and above all deeply honest and caring. Tiyo dissects the everyday physical and emotional indignities of prison life, while also examining the political system that undergirds it. He manages to laugh at the cruel absurdity of his daily existence at the same time as he articulates his rage and weariness. The story that emerges in the letters is an intimate act of defiance. And if you like audiobooks, the audio edition of Pen Pal, read by Carl Weathers, will stay with you as vividly as Tiyo’s written words.
Tiyo passed away in 2018 — an enormous shame, since he didn’t get to see his letters in print or know how perfectly they are now landing in our boiling cultural landscape in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and so much else. In lieu of speaking with Tiyo, I interviewed Mike Africa Jr., who wrote the preface to Pen Pal. Africa is the son of two members of the MOVE organization, a Black activist group based in Philadelphia that was violently targeted by the police, an assault that culminated in 1985 with the Philly PD dropping a bomb from a helicopter on a MOVE house, killing six adults and five children. By this time, Africa’s parents were already in prison, where they would spend 40 years; Mike himself was born there. Two members of the MOVE organization whom Mike was close to served time in the maximum-security prison SCI-Dallas in Pennsylvania alongside Tiyo Attallah Salah-El. Mike and I discussed the intersection of his world with Tiyo’s.
AARON SHULMAN: Although you never met Tiyo in person, could you talk about your connection to him?
MIKE AFRICA JR.: The only thing I knew about Tiyo before reading his letters was that he knew two of my MOVE brothers, Delbert and Phil Africa. They were two members of the MOVE organization who go back to its beginning. I was born just a few years after they joined; I grew up as part of the organization. Delbert has been in Dallas prison, where Tiyo was, since the early ’80s, so when we went to visit him, it was always that prison. Delbert’s children and I grew up together. When the government dropped the bomb on our house in May 1985, they were there, though I wasn’t. Together we had survived an abusive orphanage. We had survived police attacks, hate, and crimes. Delbert’s children were killed in the bombing, and afterward I would look for their faces in his. He and Phil hadn’t seen their children since 1981, so I would tell them about their kids — certain things that we did together — to give them some kind of memory. To lose your children that way, it was a hard thing to deal with. So, my connection to Tiyo was indirect. People who were important to me shared the same prison experience as he did.
What would they tell you about that experience?
Delbert and Phil would talk about the brutality of the guards and some of the inmates. They would talk about the horrible quality of the food. Everything sweet was super sweet. Everything salty was super salty. There was one instance when a box of food that came into the prison labeled Not for Human Consumption was fed to the inmates. People who were in perfect health before going to prison developed high blood pressure, diabetes, and other issues. They talked about water quality, too — people were getting kidney stones. And new guards were instructed by the veteran guards not to drink the water that the prisoners had to drink. Delbert talked about how he was informed of the death of his children by the guards, how sadistic it was. A guard brought a TV into his cell with the news playing and chuckled as he walked out. Prison life was hard. To wait in anguish for months to learn what happened to your children, to your wife.
Did you know much about Phil and Delbert’s relationship with Tiyo?
They had many friends over the years, a lot of people who came and went. But there were certain people whose name you heard all the time. This meant they were either closer to them or had life sentences. I’d hear Tiyo’s name a lot. They’d look out for him and he’d look out for them. I’d ask who Tiyo was and they’d say, “He’s a guy up here and the system done him wrong too.”
What was your experience of reading Tiyo’s letters for the first time?
I couldn’t put a face to the voice, but it gave me an understanding of why Phil and Delbert cared about him so much. Three people who are in a situation who, if they could do it all over again, would do things differently, but they were all there, in it together, and mentors and friends to each other. Surviving together. It brought it all home, made me understand them better.
I found the letters gutting and painful, but also searingly intelligent and deeply wise — plus consistently humorous. What were your thoughts and experience reading them?
Tiyo’s honesty and humanness, mixed with his humorous personality, made me feel comfortable. The things he wrote about, even if I hadn’t experienced them, felt very relatable and made me feel as if I’d known him for years. When Tiyo would talk about other people — it’s not common to talk at length about other people in letters when you’re in prison — just hearing him talk about the MOVE brothers, just saying that they were there, that’s naturally what stood out the most to me.
Did you exchange letters with your parents? What can you tell us about the tradition of letters between incarcerated people and the people on the outside who love them?
When my parents were inside, I wrote to them from the first moments of learning how to write. I was so, so young that I can distinctly remember misspelling simple words while writing. From around the age of five or six, I continued to write my parents until the day they came home when I was 40.
Not only did I write my parents, I also wrote to Delbert, Phil, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and many other prisoners. I wrote letters to the prisoners all my life. It was at the time the only way I could communicate with them. I couldn’t just call them, and they couldn’t just call me. Ever since I was a first-grader, it felt really good to write a letter and tell people about your day, what you’ve been up to, then you forget about it and then a month later you get a letter in the mail responding, saying how happy they were to get your letter — you, a kid. How many six-year-olds were writing letters like that? That encouraged me to write even more.
Writing letters to prisoners is often an essential way of communication for the prisoner and their families. It can be the prisoner’s only connection to the outside world and the family members’ only way to know what the prisoner is experiencing. Keeping up with their families and how and what they are doing is usually done through letters.
I can imagine that your understanding of the people you were writing to changed as you grew up.
Having children of my own, and knowing how much I love them and spending time with them or just being in a room with them, it’s a really, really powerful experience. And I experience it every day. To grow up knowing these people are separated from their children — that pain didn’t have the full impact on me until I had my own children. And just knowing that these people have been in prison all these years and they won’t be able to spend that time with their kids. That’s really unfortunate, that’s really messed up. It makes you grow to appreciate prisoners like my parents even more, and feel the need to support them as much as possible, because they lost so much and for such a terrible reason. My mother gave birth to me in jail, and then I was taken away from her.
Beyond the personal hardships on display in the letters, what do you feel are the more general truths in Tiyo’s letters about mass incarceration, racism, oppression, and the struggle for change?
There are many things conveyed in letters from prisoners. What I found to be fascinating in the letters from Tiyo was the need for personal change. While there is much to change about the injustices in our society, Tiyo was all about making a change that would make him a better person. The conversations in which Tiyo speaks offer timeless information that applies to all of us today, just as much, if not more, than the day he wrote about the changes. The revelations are very relevant, and the timing couldn’t be more fitting.
Tiyo had many prominent white friends and supporters, such as Howard Zinn. Do you see any complications in white people on the outside sometimes taking up the cause of incarcerated people of color? Is there a fine line between true support and paternalism, and if so, what might be the keys to providing the right kind of support?
The color of one’s skin matters much less than their behavior. The inmates need relief, and as much as they would love to see it come from familiar faces, they are usually happy to accept it from people that don’t look anything like them. In fact, in my father’s case, not only was he supported by white people, some of them were actually prison guards. If people want to offer support, they will and they should.
What is the importance of Tiyo’s letters being published, and how do you think the people who served time with Tiyo might react to them?
I can only imagine that, if the people who knew Tiyo had the fortune of reading Pen Pal, it would fill their hearts with joy and love. Prisoners don’t usually write letters for the purpose of getting them published. To see Tiyo’s letters in print is only an example that his spirit lives on and the people who loved him can have a piece of him with them forever.
If there is one thing people should take away from Tiyo’s life, what do you think it is?
The most meaningful takeaway from Pen Pal is growth. Like the naturalness in life, we never stop growing and improving ourselves. Whether at home or in a prison, we can become better people as long as we allow ourselves to follow what we learn from our experiences.
Aaron Shulman is the author of the book The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2019).