• Tiyo Attallah Salah-El Navigates the Racialized Politics of Prison

    "The only darkness comes from the majority of Black and Latino prisoners."

    Tiyo Attallah Salah-El, the founder of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons, was an author, scholar, teacher, and activist. He served a life sentence, spending much of it in the State Correctional Institute at Dallas in Pennsylvania. Tiyo died in 2018.

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    In 2004, the activist Howard Zinn introduced Tiyo to his friend, a Hollywood agent named Paul Alan Smith. Tiyo and Paul began a correspondence that lasted for nearly 15 years. Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row compiles 92 of the 568 letters Tiyo sent Paul, providing an intimate panorama of institutionalized racism in the US. The following excerpt includes two of these letters.


    August 11th, 2004

    Yo Pablo Alano Smithisimo!

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    I just received your letter, your check and the book I sent you. This morning I wrote and mailed a letter to you. It’s truly amazing yet wonderful to touch base with each other (via thoughts and letters) damn near at the same time. During the writing of my previous letter I was somewhat depressed (I’m sure you picked up on my mood). The past week I’ve spent hours rewriting my autobiography.

    To revive and cause to come back to consciousness all my wrongdoings has been difficult, extremely difficult, for me. For years I’ve attempted to rid myself of anger, guilt, & the pain I caused people. To bring back (mentally) all my crimes and violence and write about it continues to be a highly charged emotional experience for me. Your letter arrived at the right time. Your words were needed and much appreciated. Your friendship is very important to me. I will lay down my life for you. Enough said.

    There are two reasons why I am returning the gracious gift of your check. No—hell no, it is not that I don’t appreciate your kind gesture, nor am I independently wealthy. Reason #1—the rules at this prison do not allow personal checks (not even from George W. Bush!). :) Money to prisoners must be sent in the form of money orders. This prison does not trust checks written by family or friends of prisoners.

    Reason #2—lots of people “out there” ask you for money. Plus, you have been losing money regarding fundraising events. Nor did I ask you for money. Our mutually rewarding friendship is not based on how rich you are or how poor I am. Nor will I ask you to help me gain release from prison. You have given and continue to give me things that money cannot and will not ever buy.

    Okay—moving right along. I’m feeling much better about writing my story and will get back on it with renewed energy, drive and determination. It won’t be easy or pretty, but it will be truthful!! I promise you it will be completed! Stay tuned!

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    Warm hugs and much love and respect,

    *Thank you very much for becoming my lifelong friend. I’ll not ever let you down nor ever disrespect you in any way during the remaining years of my life. One day, in the years to come, I will write a song about and for you! Hang in there!


    October 14th, 2004

    Dear Pablo,

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    Sorry to be tardy responding to your letter. The events of the past weeks caused me to lay down my pen, put away my typewriter and rest from my labors. Dealing with daily doses of adversity is stressful and unfortunately something I’ve not completely conquered. Such is just one example of the many built-in obstacles one must deal with and turn into stepping stones while incarcerated.

    However, with all the pressure, problems and pain I remain above ground and in the land of the living. Come to think of it, lots of people in Iraq and Darfur have died and continue dying. I’m still alive and well. Strange, eh?

    In short this place is almost as white as white rice. The only darkness comes from the majority of black and Latino prisoners.

    This missive will cover a wide range of topics, some serious and sane, others insane and ludicrous. I just may include some flicks, cartoons and a few of my clean jokes. Okay? OKAY! I’m gonna let my thoughts flow freely in whatever sequence the thoughts come to mind as I type. HANG ON!!!!

    First off, there has been a humongous change in the administration at this prison. For the first time in the history of this prison a black man is now the superintendent! “Holy Mackerel, Andy!” Beginning in 1954, this prison was and still may be to a certain degree under the control and influence of the local and state KKK. In fact, the old address of this prison was “Drawer K”! There is an interesting twist to this “shit”, oops, I mean “shift”, change in the story of Black man replaces White man in this tragic social-engineering soap opera. The plot thickens. Allow me to set the scene.

    First a brief history. The newly appointed black superintendent was one of the first black men hired as a guard at this prison. During the past fifty years only four black men have been hired as guards. Nor are there any black counselors, tradesmen, teachers, hospital personnel, shop supervisors, barbers, kitchen staff, or mailroom workers. In short this place is almost as white as white rice. The only darkness comes from the majority of black and Latino prisoners.

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    Anyway, back to the black superintendent. While working here as a regular guard he also attended a local university, earned a BA and MBA, married a very nice white lady who was a guard working at SCI-Muncy, the PA state prison for women. She transfers here to be with her husband and two daughters. Hubby gets promoted to sergeant, another history-making event.

    The majority of redneck guards in the guard union become pissed. They do not like taking orders from a “Negro”! Ha! Black Sergeant is transferred to another prison. Soon his wife becomes seriously ill and dies while working here. Hubby gains a rapid series of promotions from sergeant to lieutenant, captain, major, deputy superintendent while at other prison. When all the old redneck klansmen retire from here, black man returns as Big Man on Campus.

    Black Superintendent brings with him the son of the politician who was instrumental in getting black man appointed as superintendent. The son is promoted to deputy superintendent in order to appease a segment of hostile younger redneck guards. With both in power and able to cover each other’s ass, they put into place new rules affecting both prisoners and guards.

    For example, prisoners young and old who do not have a high school education or a GED will have to attend school. (See enclosed green paper. Do not return it to me.) There are approximately 2,000 men here. Only eight percent have a high school education or GED. Whew! Amazing, eh? There are men who can bench press 300 or more pounds and squat big-time pro weight but cannot read or write.

    Last week guys began coming to me requesting help in learning how to read and write because they are too embarrassed to sign up for basic education classes. Although I’m inundated with a shitload of work and problems it is difficult for me to refuse to help the guys. I guess I’m just a pussy when someone asks for help. Sooooooooooo crazy-ass me has begun teaching the ABCs of reading and writing, parts of speech, basic grammar, spelling, etc. The men have offered to pay me in fruit, sandwiches, milk, juices, wash my clothes, and clean this cage. I GLADLY ACCEPTED THE OFFERS! I may be simple but I ain’t totally crazy as of yet. Wish me luck.

    Added to the above is another crazy episode regarding a young white kid who was being harassed by a stupid older Negro guy. To briefly summarize—young kid is sentenced to 10–20 years, first time in prison, stupid Negro guy assumed young kid is gay (kid is not gay). Word is relayed to me by my crew member that kid is being set up to be raped. I send word to stupid Negro guy that I want to talk to him. We meet in a selected area. I request that he lay off the kid. I also suggest that if he is in need of sex, arrangements will be made for a gay man to accommodate him.

    I gave him a choice, e.g. “no way with the kid, but all the way with a gay!” Stupid Negro becomes belligerent and loud, spits out lots of profanity (nothing I’ve not heard before). I then say, “If your dick can reach your asshole, go fuck yourself.” I walked away. Later I talked to the kid; told him all would be okay, not to worry, to walk with and sit with me in the chow hall and walk with my crew when going out to the yard, the school or the gym.

    Also suggested that he not accept any so-called gifts, such as candy, cookies, or sandwiches from anyone. Two of my crew members paid a surprise visit to stupid negro guy when he least expected it. Certain rules were made clear to stupid negro guy. Weeks have passed and there is an air of peace being felt by all concerned. Young kid is doing well. Stupid negro guy is healing well. No more of a problem.

    My sister Bette remains in bad shape, bedridden at home and being taken care of by her youngest daughter Odetta. Bette’s older daughter died seven years ago. She became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Odetta lives there with her male partner who oftentimes physically and sexually abuses her. She lost her job as a computer programmer. Currently working as some sort of assistant manager at a fast food place near Bette’s house. The guy takes care of Bette and the house when Odetta is at work. He professes to be of all things a fuckin’ undertaker. The whole situation is fucked up!

    Odetta has become an alcoholic and heavy smoker and who knows what else. She called this prison leaving word for me not to send letters or cards to Bette or have any of my friends contact her regarding Bette. Need I mention what effect that had on me? I’m afraid that they will soon send Bette to a nursing home, something she never wants to happen to her. If you recall in the early part of my autobiography I mentioned that Bette and my brother Ernest made sure mother and dad were not placed in a nursing home. They died at Bette’s home in the same room where Bette is presently kept.

    I relay this family situation and information to you because when you read chapter six of my autobiography you’ll learn the specific details of not only the crime I’m accused of but more importantly that one of my family members was the paid informant who led the State and Federal Drug Enforcement Task Force to my door and gave the names of the people working for me and the weapon used in the killing. He is the son of my sister Hazel. To the best of my knowledge he was placed and is still in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Stay tuned. The plot thickens!

    Moving right along. For days I was in a slump and had a tough time getting back to work on my autobiography. Then lo and behold your letter arrives and fucks me up some more. (Be cool, I’m just kidding!) It was like a breath of fresh air that I surely needed. You are indeed a letter writin’ fool! WOW! I hope to one day learn to write as well as you “does”! (smile) The way you explained your trip and thoughts to your partners was on “de” money!

    Last week guys began coming to me requesting help in learning how to read and write because they are too embarrassed to sign up for basic education classes.

    I loved the way you gave praise regarding the razor-sharp skills and talents of Lisa Feinstein. That was very LARGE of you and a great business evaluation. You’s a very smart kookie!! eek! I also loved the way you gave yourself some “props” that you so richly deserved for doing a fine job. Ain’t nothing wrong with giving credit to self when it’s a true fact. In a strange sort of happy way I’m learning a lot from you, I shit you not. I read, reread and reread your letters because you cheer me up and fuck with me at the same time.

    Oh, before I forget, I’ve taken on the process of reading the complete Oxford English Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. I read and take notes and practice spellings and definitions. I complete five to seven pages of each book then give myself a test on what I’ve learned. Only a nut like me would dare undertake such an insane endeavor. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. I shall try hard not to become addicted to gobbledygook.

    You are indeed a busy, hardworking motherforyou! I am very interested in learning the outcomes of the three filmmakers you are trying to sign. I have a shitload of questions. For example, why must their producers, lawyers, sales reps and lord knows who else get on board? Why so many intermediaries? Do not the filmmakers have the final say on their work? Why do many directors feel they need to be at an agency with actors? What is the differentiation between regular agents in TV and feature agents? How long did it take you to build up one of the best director lists in the business? How did you do it? How many women are working at such a high level of management? How many male and female “Negroes” are on board, be they American or not?

    No wonder you type so well. Man, I used to think I could burn up a typewriter. No more! You leave me in the dust. By the way, how about hiring me to park your cars and open doors for you? Have you ever seen those statues of black jockeys placed on the front lawns of various homes? Well, I’m willing to stand in front of your crib with a tee shirt, straw hat and jockstrap, playing the song “We Shall Overcome!” on my sax. I’m willing to do all that in order to get a freakin’ job. I look forward to receiving a positive response from you concerning this serious matter. Moving right along. I ain’t done yet.

    And now we come to the topic that we just can’t seem to get enough of, WOMEN! I attempted to be somewhat diplomatic when suggesting that the trainer would not workout. No pun intended. Ha!

    Your handling of the redhead was a smart move. I hope that by the time you receive and read this letter y’all will have talked on the phone and have met face to face. If not, I’ll ask her to call you from here on my cell phone. I’ll hold further comments about her until I receive word from you.

    I enclose pictures of two of my female friends. Stop lusting! They are lovers of jazz, good foods, good books and radical politics. Smart as hell and very down to earth. They both know each other and “we all get along”! Next time I’ll explain more about them.

    Okay, my 22-year-old secretary has just informed me that Martha Stewart has arrived on the cellblock and wants to meet me. Duty calls. Gotta go see the new rich babe. Will catch you soon again. Bye bye for now.

    The one and only,



    Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row by Tiyo Attallah Salah-El is available from OR Books.

    Tiyo Attallah Salah-El
    Tiyo Attallah Salah-El
    Tiyo Attallah Salah-El served a life sentence, primarily in the State Correctional Institute at Dallas in Pennsylvania. He was the founder of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons, the author of an autobiography, and a teacher of law and GED classes in prison. He died in prison in 2018. His papers are archived at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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