Paul Alan Smith Aids Prison Abolition Movement with New Book

Paul Alan Smith Aids Prison Abolition Movement with New Book

November 29, 2020 0 By Stephen Callahan

The killing of George Floyd sparked mass outrage and protests this summer, laying bare many of the systemic issues with policing and criminal justice in this country. However, many activists have called for an expansion of the criminal justice reform debate beyond just the issue of policing to a related issue of importance — the U.S. prison system. A new book from Paul Alan Smith, Pen Pal, helps to touch on the issue of prison abolition through a series of letters written by a noted prison abolitionist, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El.

Prison conditions

While it may serve as an introduction for some, the book from Paul Alan Smith is merely the most recent in a long line of works that have invoked the idea of prison abolition. Proponents of prison reform in the U.S. point to a host of startling statistics that highlight how the country’s penal system differs from others around the world. For instance, the U.S. incarcerates people at a rate that far outweighs the rest of the world. Though the country accounts for about five percent of the global population, its criminal justice system houses roughly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The burden of the system is also placed disproportionately on people of color, who are imprisoned in numbers that far exceed their percentage makeup of the U.S. population.

Additionally, conditions in these prisons are notoriously inhumane — assault and sexual exploitation are commonplace, solitary confinement is often used despite condemnation from the United Nations, and prisoner labor is utilized to supplement a range of industries. These conditions stand in sharp contrast to the prison systems of most other Western countries, where a more humane approach is typically taken towards administering justice. Notably, in these countries, life sentences are rare and even when they are used, they almost never result in an individual spending the rest of their life in prison.

Push for change

Prison abolitionists have long-argued that the above conditions, along with a host of other considerations, are cause for a complete reimagining of the criminal justice system. One that cuts to the heart of the system’s purpose and provokes a long hard look at what society is seeking to accomplish through the mechanism of imprisonment. Many in the movement advocate for the phasing out of the use of prisons in favor of a system that supports the rehabilitation of individuals who have committed a crime. This, many argue, would not only be a more humane way to administer justice, but would also reduce the burden placed on society by criminal activity.

One activist who was at the forefront of these activities was the noted abolitionist featured in Pen Pal, Tiyo Attalah Salah-El. Salah-El was the founder of the Coalition for the Abolition of Prisons, an organization he created while serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. A prolific writer and thinker, the activist is known for his range of essays and books which include an autobiography. The activist’s letters in Pen Pal, written before his passing in 2018, span the length of his 14-year friendship with Smith and help to create not only a portrait of his life in prison, but also his aspirations for what society at large can become.

Creator viewpoint

For his part, Smith, a talent agent and manager, is optimistic about the effect the book can have on others. He’s noted in the past how his own interactions with Salah-El helped to significantly change his viewpoints on the prison system and the role it plays in criminal justice.

“What Tiyo’s objective was,” says Smith, “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 remedy the problem at hand?’ That’s not saying a problem doesn’t exist. It’s saying that the abolition of prison will help us redress the very reason that we, at least intellectually, convinced ourselves that prisons were necessary to improve X, Y, and Z. That in itself was eye-opening to me and continues to be.”

It was this ability of Salah-El to change minds through his eloquent prose that helped to motivate the release of the book. The more the entertainment professional interacted with the prison abolitionist, the more he saw the sense in what he was saying. That said, he also feels the book can transcend its message and entertain the user through the connection he formed with Salah-El. That connection, humorous and insightful, is a driving part of the book’s action and one that he hopes will keep readers engaged as they learn more about prison reform.

With the release of Pen Pal, the movement for prison abolition gains a compelling resource with which to educate individuals on the problems inherent to the U.S. prison system. Amidst the current focus on criminal justice reform, the new book created by Paul Alan Smith certainly has the potential to make a significant impact.

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