Recent events have shown that many people are more engaged than ever in the work of bringing about social justice. One common area of focus in this work has been the criminal justice system and its disproportionate effect on people of color. Adding to the growing body of works that delve into this disparity, Paul Alan Smith is now releasing a collection of his letters with noted prison activist, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El. Read on for a look at the new book, “Pen Pal: Prison Letters from a Free Spirit on Slow Death Row”, including more about the two men responsible for the correspondence from which it was born.
Paul Alan Smith is an agent and manager living in Los Angeles and working in the entertainment industry. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area during the politically turbulent 60s and 70s helped to inform his sense of moral activism over the years. That moral compass has helped him become known to his colleagues across the industry as a free-thinker who works tirelessly for his ideals when moved to action.
This sense of idealism has manifested in many ways over the course of his career but one way in which it’s exemplified is through his efforts towards environmental activism. An example of this is his push to start a recycling campaign at his first agency job in the 1980s. At that time, recycling was a little-known idea to the general public, but the young agent saw that the benefits of such a program could be profound. He was able to sell his supervisors on the idea when they saw how it could pay for itself through reduced waste management fees. Eventually, he supplemented the program with related initiatives such as a carpooling incentive plan and support for public transportation costs.
The agent and manager now runs New Deal MFG Co., a management company and agency known for its flexibility in serving client needs.
About the author
The new book, comprised of letters written by Salah-El while serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison, helps to tell the story of the author’s activism. The story also touches on his many talents and vocations, which include writer, scholar, musician, and teacher. A noted prison abolitionist, he also founded the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons and was a leading voice in the movement to reform the country’s justice system. Through his eloquent correspondence, the reader is introduced to an extraordinary mind that helps to lay bare the inadequacies of the current penal system.
Salah-El’s activism has connected him to many at the forefront of the fight for social justice. One friendship that arose as a consequence was his relationship with Howard Zinn, the famed historian. The two kept up with their own correspondence throughout their later years, much of which can be read in the archives of the University of Amherst and NYU. In one letter, Zinn shows his admiration for the activist and all he has accomplished through his work.
“You have organized a movement for the abolition of prisons, you have had your ideas spread across the nation and across the globe,” writes Zinn. “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.”
Inspiration for the book
The book finds its roots in the long friendship that blossomed between the entertainment professional and the prison activist. That friendship can be viewed in the letters written by Salah-El as he talks of life in prison and the relationship between the two men. For his part, Paul Alan Smith has spoken extensively about the high regard in which he holds the activist and his respect for his work. He touched on these topics and more in a recent interview he gave concerning the book’s release.
“Tiyo and I had been pen pals for 14 years,” said Smith in the interview. “And towards the end, I was looking at all these letters that I had saved ― I think there were about 568 ― and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if I could somehow share the experience with others, particularly those whom have had as little connection to the actual machinations of the penitentiary system as I had?’ And the takeaway was, ‘Why is this guy still in prison? And what is going on in these prisons? This doesn’t make sense.’ And my hope was that the manner by which they came to these conclusions was reminiscent of good political theater. You’re so engaged with the story, you don’t realize what you’re taking away until you leave the theater. And I wanted to try to emulate that, because what I got from Tiyo remains a remarkable gift.”
As Smith notes, one of the defining ideas of the book, and Salah-El’s life, is the concept that our society would function better in the absence of prisons. This idea may be tough to synthesize for many reading the book who have no context of what the criminal justice system might look like without prisons. Again, Smith has addressed this concept in recent remarks.
“The problem that I have with the prison system, and what I have with society as a whole, we fail to look at things in a cellular manner.” noted Smith. “If I impact this over here, what are the ramifications over there? Our prison system doesn’t think of this concept. What are the reverberations? What are the repercussions of that on society?”
For many, that concept may be the ultimate takeaway from the book. Told through the letters of a remarkable individual who made prison abolition his life’s work, the book can be an eye-opening resource for those who do not have firsthand experience in the area. This not only reflects on the power of the letters and their author, but also of the drive of Paul Alan Smith to bring the ideas to light. Much like Salah-El, he has directed his life towards the betterment of others. This latest release is just one more step along that journey and is a powerful reminder of the impact a single person can have on society as a whole.