Prison Letters: An Interview with Paul Alan Smith and Carl Weathers

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

Tiyo Attallah Salah-El was a decorated Korean War veteran and jazz musician who, in 1975, was sentenced to life in prison for murder. While incarcerated, he earned a BA in African American history, a MA in Political Science, worked as the Director for the Prisoner Education Program, and founded the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons. 

A new book, Pen Pal: Prison Letters From a Free Spirit On Slow Death Row, is a collection of letters written by Attallah Salah-El over a decade to his friend, Paul Alan Smith. The audio book is narrated by Carl Weathers. The letters paint a vivid picture of the racism, abuse, and neglect that define incarceration in the U.S., as well as Attallah Salah-El’s individual struggles with cancer, aging, regret, and hope. 

Amanda Knox 

How did this project come about and how did you both become involved?

Paul Alan Smith 

Tiyo and I had been pen pals for 14 years. 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 of 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. There it is, in a nutshell.

Carl Weathers  

How I got into this was very, very simple. Paul introduced me to the concept of this book in conversation, and after reading the letters, it was really apparent to me that there was something really worthwhile in putting this out into the world. It was very timely, socially. It’s all been coming to a head for a while. Paul’s obvious relationship with him came through in those letters, and the affection and friendship that grew seemed to me to be in itself a really powerful statement. But then also it was the idea of this penal system and the business of jailing people, many of them for their entire lives. I am not against the judicial system. What I’m against is systematically utilizing all of these systems to not just incarcerate people, but to incarcerate people of color at such an alarming rate and for so long. So the tone of those letters, the communication back and forth between Tiyo and Paul, and this man’s intelligence, and the pathos of it all, just moved me. And I said to Paul, “Whatever you do with this, please include me.” 

Amanda Knox

I think 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. 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. I have a lot of formerly incarcerated friends who think that incarceration is justified in many cases. But for Tiyo that wasn’t the case, and I was wondering if you guys could talk to me about how he talked to you about these ideas and how you feel about them?

Carl Weathers 

I’d like to chime in first, if I may, because you used the word “he was a criminal.” I think that’s a really loaded word. It’s application to people may or may not be justified. I’m not certain that it doesn’t do a great disservice to them and to us. I’m just becoming more and more and more and more and more aware of the otherization of people. We all, in our own ways, have done things that, in the kindest of words, may not have been kosher, but when we get the label “criminal,” it really places us in a position where we’re forever defending ourselves. I myself have never been in jail, knock on wood, never been arrested, knock on wood, but I’ve certainly had too many occasions where the police, for whatever reason, seem to be motivated to approach me for one reason or another, and there but for the grace of God I could be another Tiyo. So that whole criminal stigma is just one that I’m not real comfortable with, and I’d like to reject, because the circumstances that put people behind these bars are not necessarily always circumstances that are a result of something they’ve done. 

Amanda Knox  

I’m glad you pinged on that, Carl, because I also hate the label “criminal.” And the main reason why I hate the label “criminal” is because, unlike any other label that’s out there, “criminal” takes over a person’s identity. I think something that’s really beautiful about Tiyo’s story is he himself has said, “I did some things that were criminal back in the day, and that I’m not proud of, but that’s not the only thing that I am.”

Carl Weathers 

Yes, yes. And reading his letters was really eye opening, because so many of us have had the really good fortune, through the combination maybe of education and some craft or profession and people who support us, and walk a different path. But in Tiyo’s case, and for men and women like Tiyo, my God, one wrong turn and that road can be a road that you can never get off of.

Paul Alan Smith 

I want to briefly touch on the concept of abolition. The first time he wrote it to me, I’m like, “What?” Again, this is so awesome about any friendship when you not only get support from whomever you’re friends with, but you learn from them, and in this case, it was highly imbalanced because I certainly learned more than Tiyo. But nonetheless, when we talk about the concept of abolition, many of us connote the abolition of slavery, and that really wasn’t Tiyo’s point. What Tiyo’s objective was, he looks at systemic problems and says, “How can I contribute to the rectification of a problem that keeps repeating itself? Is prison the ideal environment or methodology to rectify the problem at hand?” That’s not saying a problem doesn’t exist. It’s saying that the abolition of prison will help us rectify the very reason that we, at least intellectually, convinced ourselves that prisons were necessary to rectify X, Y and Z. That in itself was eye opening to me and continues to be.

Amanda Knox  

Tiyo’s philosophy is an interesting counterargument to the current progressive, mainstream platform of separating out nonviolent drug offenders from the “violent predators” within our prison system. Tiyo himself was imprisoned for a violent crime and, if he were alive today, would not benefit from the current reform movement, despite his extraordinary achievements and his obvious benevolence of spirit. What do you guys make of that?

Carl Weathers

Wow. Well, Amanda, this is a very, very complex subject. The whole idea of incarceration in this country, it is such a business. It’s become more and more public that the system of imprisoning and holding people basically in bondage is a growth from the early days in this country, and I’m sure other countries as well, of having overseers and slave patrols and you could basically capture and house people who you might label as your problem children, and ultimately make a business out of it. This thing is so far deeper than just one man in prison. This is an enormous revenue stream for so many people. The word abolition simply comes from abolish. I don’t know that that’s ever going to happen. But there needs to be great revision in how this system operates. That doesn’t necessarily answer your question, but there are enough minds and people in this country who can ferret through some of the issues and work to something that’s more useful, and certainly more just than what we’re seeing with the staggering numbers of people being incarcerated and, like Tiyo, dying in prison. 

Paul Alan Smith 

I think Tiyo was of the spirit that if it’s nonviolent offenders, great! Let them out, and then we’ll deal with ourselves next, but he would keep on fighting.

Carl Weathers 

If I could just tag one thing onto that, too. One thing Tiyo continually talks about is helping others. You read those letters and it really is fascinating how there are other prisoners, all colors, and he’s not a guy who’s asking for a lot. That’s a person who is filled with grace. Because he’s willing to accept where he is, and his plight, but he’s looking to help other people. That’s a commendable trait in anyone.

Amanda Knox 

Tiyo is interesting because the tragedy of Tiyo’s story isn’t necessarily the tragedy of human potential, because he was able to accomplish so much. But it remains a human tragedy because it feels like Tiyo deserved better. And if Tiyo did deserve better, what about the other Tiyo’s that are still in there on slow death row? 

Paul Alan Smith 

Listening to you, I’m feeling guilty. I’m not writing to any of them. So thanks for that, Amanda.

Amanda Knox 

I’m sorry.

Paul Alan Smith  

No, you’re 100% correct. But I will tell you, there are heroes out there. Like Lois Ahrens, Monty Neill, Howard Zinn, who help folks like Tiyo getting degrees, Erika Arthur, helping others like Tiyo. They are, in my mind, amongst many heroes fighting to work with these men and women behind bars. There are far more in the trenches than a bonehead like me.

Amanda Knox 

Do you have anything to add Carl?

Carl Weathers 

That Paul’s a bonehead, you mean? I think Paul really said it really eloquently. Those people, talk about heroes, because they have very full lives, and to commit the time to helping this man who’s incarcerated for life, there’s no return there except the joy of being able to help someone. We all give in our own way. Some of us give less, some of us give more. Tiyo was also giving while he was incarcerated. He was a protector, a motivator, a teacher, a friend, a brother. He was so many things. And as a human being just grew while he was locked away. He gave an awful lot, and maybe sometimes we have to go through adversity to find that in ourselves, but this was a man who left his goodness in the hearts of a lot of people.

Amanda Knox  

Speaking to his growth and his goodness, it sort of goes to how going out of your way to see the humanity of someone who’s in Tiyo’s position requires us to confront some assumptions that we have about the purpose and goal of the criminal justice system. First, that crimes need to be acknowledged and deterred necessarily through prosecution and punishment. And secondly, that punishments must reflect the severity of the crime and they must be final, regardless of how much that human being grows and develops and gives within the course of his confinement. Has reading through these letters and corresponding with this person made you question those assumptions?

Paul Alan Smith

In any society, if you were to recount what you just said, Amanda, everything on paper makes sense. And yet, what is the objective of punishment? 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. 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? That is my takeaway. There’s cause and effect. And you want to aim to rectify society, it isn’t just this simple point A to point B and then you just walk away, problem solved. It’s more complex. 

Carl Weathers 

There is something that I would suggest we all know. It’s pay me now or pay me later. If you invest in these communities and these young people, how many will you have to incarcerate and put through the system later? There’s no profit in putting people through school. There’s no benefit to you economically. It’s crass, but it’s true. Ask yourself, where is the money in it? If there’s no money in it, we don’t give it much attention. But we give a lot of attention to the prison industrial complex, because there’s lots of money to be made, from the cars that we transport people in, to the weapons that we utilize, to the uniforms, to the gasoline to run those vehicles, to the institutions that we build to house them in. It just goes on and on and on. There is an industry there that, if we change the system so that we’re really educating kids and people who are less fortunate, we might not have as many of them housed, and what’s that going to do to the economy? So I think there’s a design in all this that’s so obvious. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this rocket is only headed one way and that’s down.

Amanda Knox

Thank you, both. Before we go, let’s hear from Tiyo, himself, as read by Carl Weathers.

Carl Weathers reading a letter from Tiyo Attallah Salah-El to Paul Alan Smith  [004 – 2004.mp3; 08:47 – 12:39]

July 29th, 2004. Yo, Pablo. Thank you for your inspiring, soulful letter, and the ass-kicking notes. You’ve moved me to make a confession. Why I decided to hold back on the true emotions ― anger, hate, violence, the shooting of a cop, the fights, the killings I witnessed in prison, the beatings I took from guards, the assistance I gave to prisoners who escaped, the reasons I moved out when my father left, how the killing and seeing dead bodies in Korea stayed in my mind for years, and when in fights, I would not feel the punches hitting my face and body, how and why people became afraid of me, how and why I became involved with the sale of guns, etc., how I supplied certain doctors, lawyers, politicians with women and how i sometimes had sex with their wives — there’s so much shit I experienced. You may not think highly of me. You’ll also learn that it was the son of my sister, Hasel, who set me up after I saved his life. You’ll learn the way i had to speak to a group of prisoners who wanted to rape a young white kid who was sentenced to life and is new to prison life. There is much, much not so nice things to tell, or I’ll write you about. Just thinking about it fucks me up. I am not at all proud of myself. I’m ashamed of my stupid, crazy actions. I’m sure people will hate me with a passion and will rejoice when I’m dead. I’m amazed that I’ve lived this long. My sister, Betty, is my life-long champion. She has saved my life many, many times. I love her very much. You’ll learn how she protected me, cared for the wounds on my body, would not allow the police to kill me. She would give parties for the guys in the bands I played with. Man, she is a true giant. Recently, she had a stroke and can’t talk. She knows that she may die soon. I’m fucked up about it. I want to complete the book before she dies. I want her to know that, at long last, I’ve become a nice person. The type of person she said I would one day become. Let me explain why I do not use the phones. The phones are tapped. No more need be said. Nor do I accept visits. I refuse to be strip-searched going to and returning from a visit. Out of my love and respect for Betty, Monty Neill, Howard Zinn and Bev and Wally, I accepted their visits only one time. I explained my reasons to them and all is well. They understand my position on these issues. Nor do I have money. At present I think there’s $3.82 in my account. The above-mentioned folks are kind enough to send me money via money order that enables me to buy toilet articles, long underwear, socks, boots, etc., and to pay when I go to sick hall. They are the ones who collectively purchased a sax for me and a typewriter, a radio and a TV. I’m being upfront with you about everything. I want to remain your friend. It is your decision to stay or not stay the course with me. This is truly a crazy-type letter. No real structure, no paragraphs, etc. Just hard facts of the truth. I’m not going to reread this letter. It’s from my gut. Bypass the mistakes, rough printing, etc., and look for me and see or find my heart and soul in these words. I’ll chill until I hear from you and hear that’s OK to continue moving forward with your friendship. Best wishes, Tiyo.