Tiyo Attallah Salah-El was a musician, composer, published writer, teacher, prison abolitionist, and good friend to people throughout the country and beyond. He passed away at age 85 in June 2018 in the State Correctional Institution in Dallas PA. He had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and was incarcerated for close to 50 years. At the time of his death, he and Lois Ahrens were writing an application for his commutation.
Although he was 85 and in failing health, “compassionate release” was not an option. Despite spending more than 50 years in prisons and jails in Pennsylvania, including more than 40 years at Dallas, Tiyo led a life filled with accomplishments and the love of his friends. In 1995, he founded the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons (CAP). CAP connected Tiyo to the world-wide network of prison abolitionists. His essays on prison abolition have been published in numerous scholarly journals. Through Beacon College’s Prison Education Project in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Tiyo earned a bachelor’s degree in African American History followed by a master’s degree.
Monty Neill, Beacon College’s director, became his life-long friend, as did one of his teachers, Howard Zinn. Their friendship continued until Howard’s death. In 2006, with the assistance of Howard Zinn and Howard’s friend and agent, Paul Alan Smith, The Autobiography of Tiyo Attallah Salah-El was published. Because of the repressive and Kafkaesque rules of the PA DOC, Tiyo was never able to receive a copy of his own autobiography. In 2020, Paul Alan Smith published a book of Tiyo's letters to him, Pen Pal: Prison Letters From A Free Spirit on Slow Death Row (OR Books). At the core of Tiyo’s life were his friendships, which included activists and organizers in the United States and around the world. His letters detail his battles with the prison bureaucracy, the daily indignities faced at the hands of guards by every prisoner, his love of music – most especially jazz – his exuberance for life and learning, and his love of his friends.