T.J. Parsell

FISH



       F I S H    A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison  

               "Fish is a beautiful book ...   I can't imagine a better written memoir of any kind coming along anytime soon."

                                                                                                            - James McCourt, The Los Angeles Times 
 
FISH: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison

Thanks for visiting my website.   And thanks for reading Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison.   It's always a pleasure to hear from readers and I try and make it a point to respond to every email I receive.   So if you get a chance, please drop a note and let me know how you made out with my book.   I can be reached at tjparsell@yahoo.com.
  

Over the years, I've received many emails from readers who've wanted to know more.   I've attempted to answer many of those questions below.   But again, feel free to write if you have other questions.    I'm always happy to share my experience, strength and hope.  

It took me three years to write Fish, (not to mention the 20 or so years of time, distance and therapy).   I wanted to put a human face on the issue of sending juveniles into adult prisons.  Needless to say, spending my late adolescence in prison has scared me in ways that cannot be seen or imagined.   I tried to answer two simple questions:  What was it like and how did I survive it?  It was a period of my life that continues to haunt me.   In many respects, I wrote Fish as a way of purging myself of that horrible experience.   This is also what drives much of my advocacy work.

I came to New York when I was 21 years old.   I literally got out of prison on a Monday and flew to New York City that Friday.  ($29, People's Express Airline).   I needed to put as much distance between me and my prison experience as I possibly could.   New York was a great place for someone determined on reinventing himself.  It had a anonymity that was sorely lacking in Michigan.   And more importantly, there were jobs there.  I also knew I needed to escape the influences of my family.    Don't get me wrong, I love my family, but we've suffered many generations of alcoholism, drug addiction, physical and emotional abuse, and too many encounters with the criminal justice system.  My grandfather, father, uncles, cousins and brothers have all spent time inside a prison or juvenile detention facility.    At 21, I needed to start anew.

Once in New York, I stumbled into the computer software business by way of this thing called word processing.   From working on the prison newspaper (and being a clerk inside), I could type fairly well (85 word per minute without errors).  I got a job as temporary typist at the Cosmopolitan Temp Agency.   One of my first assignment was at The Covenant House (a crisis center for runaway and homeless youth).   It was a great place to work, and in many ways, I identified with a lot of the youth there.   This was also at a time when word processing was just starting to take off.  In the early 1980s, word processors were these huge machines that took up an entire desk -- and all they did was word processing.  I loved it, and soon started messing around with the utilities.   I was at the forefront of personal computers.  I got a job in the data processing department of the New York City Transit Authority, went to college at night, and before I knew it - I was caught up in the fast paced world of the software industry.   (More about that later.) 

First hired as a temporary at the
New York City Transit Authority
Hardly anyone knew about my past.   It was a closely held secret.   Although I did have to disclose when I was hired in full time at the New York City Transit Authority.   The folks in human resources guided me on how to handle the question, "Have You Ever Been Arrested?".    At the time, it was illegal for employers to ask unless you were dealing with finances and you needed to be bonded.   City jobs were an exception.   So I simply answered the question by stating: "Yes, at age 17, as a youthful offender."   I didn't provided any further details and they never asked.   Over the years, whenever this question came up, I always handled it the same way.  I was never once asked to provide  more details.  
 
After my release from prison, I was determined to put that part of my past behind me.   But my demons from my experience inside continued to haunt me and I lacked the self-awareness to seek help.   Like many young people in New York City, I drank, hung out at clubs and experimented with recreational drugs.  If you've ever seen the film, Bright Lights Big City with Michael J. Fox -- it pretty much tells my story.   Hanging out at clubs, doing cocaine -- I eventually hit a bottom.   I got sober at 27.   I had to get sober or I would've  self-destructed.   Getting sober, led me to therapy.   Therapy, eventually, got to me talk about prison.   But that took many years before I could seriously delve into what happened to me there.

Once I got sober, I was essentially unstoppable.   I worked during the day and went to college at night.   I was 30 before I graduated with a bachelors degree from St. Francis College (Class of 1990).  At the time, I was the first in my family to have attended college.    I spent six years at the New York City Transit Authority, in their data processing department.   It was a great training ground.   From there, I went into the software business and throughout the 90s I worked for several companies, including Powersoft, Borland, InterTrust Technologies and a few others.   It was a crazy time in that business.  Four out of the six companies I worked for was acquired by a larger company.   I was the number one sales rep at two of those companies, and then rapidly rose through the ranks of sales management.   I loved sales, because it was all about the numbers.   It didn't matter what school I went to, or what my childhood was like - at the end of the quarter - my numbers were either there and they weren't.   I always delivered, and my sales were always at the top.
  

 
Powersoft, #1 Sales Rep.       
 
Speaking on Capitol Hill
in support of the
Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003
When I turned 40, I hit another turning point in my life.   I'd known I needed to write Fish for many years.   In therapy, as I worked on the issues surrounding my experiences in prison, I grew increasingly  angry at how the system seemed to have colluded with my perpetrators. Therapy could only take me so far in my recovery.   Activism was a logical extension.   It was a way to take that horrible experience and turn it into something meaningful.   My successful years in the software business enabled me to venture out and to work on something more meaningful.

I quit my job, started writing, and got involved with some of the advocacy efforts aimed at persuading the federal government to do something about prison sexual violence.   I was involved in numerous efforts, including speaking on capital hill in support of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the first ever federal legislation to address the problem.   I worked on my book full time, was elected board President of a non-profit human rights group and served as a consultant to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.   I helped open the PREA Commission office at the U.S. Justice Department and helped organize their first public meeting at Notre Dame Law School.  

It took me three years to write Fish and another year to edit it and to get it published.   Then I spent a year promoting it.    I spoke at law schools all over the country - planting seeds with future lawmakers, prosecutors and judges.   I spoke at Harvard, Columbia, Howard, American, UCLA and Notre Dame law schools, just to mention a few.   
 
 
Opening the office of the
Prison Rape Elimination Commission
at the U.S. Justice Department.
At the same time, I had several producers contact me about adapting my book into a feature length film.   It was flattering, and somewhat daunting to have someone interested in making a movie from my story, but we've all seen plenty of examples of a good book that was turned into a terrible movie.   Fish has been my life's work.   It took me twenty years in therapy just to get to a place where I was able to write about it.   I felt too skittish about giving up the material to someone else.   When you sell your film rights, you're essentially giving up control of what they do with it.   It's no longer your story, but rather the inspiration for whatever story they choose to tell with it.   Well, that didn't work for me.   The opportunity to put Fish to film and create a story that can make a real difference - to change hearts and minds -  it's too great of an opportunity to allow someone else to squander it.   So I decided to go to film school.   I got accepted into New York University's Graduate Film Program.   It's one of best film programs in the world and I've spent the last several years learning from some of the best people in the independent film world.

Last year, I went back to Jackson Prison - the very prison I was housed in over thirty years ago - and shot a short film based on my book.   It's been part of my journey toward making the full length feature.  It was quite empowering to go back there, and to be in control of the place.   I went back with the help of some 200 people -  to shine a spotlight on one of the most neglected human rights travesties in U.S. history.   This fall, that film will start making the festival circuit.   I'm now heads-down working on the feature script.   Fish is not the kind of movie that the traditional Hollywood system would make, which is all the more reason I need help from anyone and everyone I can to make this dream a reality.      
  


(MORE TO FOLLOW.......)  
  
Scene of the Crime: A Fotomat, circa 1978.
 

      When I first sat down to write my book, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison, I was intent on answering two questions: What was that experience like for me, and how did I survive it?  I had spent a fortune in therapy analyzing these two areas.  I wanted to take what I’d learned about myself and communicate that to the world, whether or not anyone was willing to listen.   I felt compelled to tell my story, because I knew I was a living, breathing testament to the limitless potential of young people to change.
      We incarcerate more people in the United States than any other country in the world and we have some of the highest rates of recidivism to go along with it.  I was saved by an education and felt compelled to use my experience to help change the system.   I'm living proof of the resiliency, adaptability and rehabilitative potential of juvenile offenders.   
      Embarking somewhat nervously on my fledgling career as an activist, I used the networking skills I acquired in business.   I formed alliances with leading human rights organizations.   I joined with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Vera Institute of Justice, Prison Fellowship Ministries and Stop Prisoner Rape.


          There is a long list of efforts I helped move along, but mostly by providing my own personal narrative.   I worked with people who were a lot savvier than I was, who helped draft legislation, and set up most of the meetings.   I had the privilege of providing a voice for those who, more often than not, were not allowed a voice.   I am grateful to have had that opportunity. 

            I became  board President of a human rights group dedicated to ending sexual violence in prison.  We focused on three primary areas: Government Accountability, Transforming Public Attitudes and Access to Resources for survivors.  I've since founded my own organization, The Campaign for Responsible Justice, dedicated to the fairness and safety of all men, women and children in all forms of detention.  
            I had the privilege to work with Dr. Alan Beck at the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, where I served on committees and helped negotiated implementation of the largest and most authoritative study of prisoner rape ever conducted. It was exciting and gratifying to be part of these meetings, where I sat across the table from the various heads of the Departments of Corrections for several states, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and other personnel representing Sheriff’s Offices, the National Institute of Corrections and leading human rights groups.  

          In conjunction with the National Institute of Corrections, I helped produce a video that is shown to incoming prisoners  on prisoner rape and how it can be avoided.   I continue to speak at schools, conferences and over 7.5 million viewers have watched my YouTube videos about the horrors teenagers face in adult prisons.  I’m proud to say that by sitting on committees and drafting standards, I contributed to the herculean efforts that have lead to the formation of national standards that were released last May by the U.S. Justice Department.   These standards can make a real difference in terms of how this issue is handled and affects every prison, jail, juvenile and immigration detention facility in the United States.  

          But these standards are just a start, and they still allow minors to be sent to adult prisons.   My growing concern is that this issue will fade from the media and much of the effort of the last decade will be for naught.   All the more reason to make my book into a feature length film - to put a human face on the issue and to generate the ongoing political will.

I had the privilege of working with Dr. Alan Beck at the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, where I served on several committees and helped negotiate implementation of the largest and most authoritative study of prisoner rape ever conducted. It was gratifying to be part of these meetings, where I sat across the table from various heads of the Department of Corrections for several states, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and other personnel from Sheriff’s Offices, the National Institute of Corrections and leading human rights groups.  

If the arguments that went on inside my head were ever amplified, I’m sure I’d be placed in a padded cell.

            I know intimately the lifelong emotional consequences of rape and violence for a juvenile who was sent to an adult prison. I was lucky to have overcome the limitations this damage can place on a person's life. But this is not true for the majority of victims who are likely to return to prison, develop incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder, and not live up to any potential they may have had.

            As I alluded to earlier, in early 2000, I had life by the short hairs.   I was extremely successful.  I was a Senior Vice President of a software company.  There was nothing, other than my own booming conscience, that compelled me to speak out about the horrors of prison for a juvenile sent to an adult facility.

 “Are you sure, God, that this is what I’m supposed to be doing?    This is crazy!   How will I ever work in business again?    How much money do I have left?   What’s my burn rate?   This feels like self-annihilation.”

           
I keep going, because I know I won’t find peace any other way.  My activism is a natural extension of my ongoing recovery.   It’s a way to channel my rage, it’s an effective way to transform a horrible experience into something positive.

 

“Prison rape not only threatens the lives of those who fall prey to their aggressors, but it is potentially devastating to the human spirit.  Shame, depression, and a shattering loss of self-esteem accompany the perpetual terror the victim thereafter must endure.”   

                                             - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, Farmer V. Brennan

 

            Since coming out about my victimization, I’m acutely aware of how differently some people react to me.   As my videos and book continues to circulate, the looks I sometimes get rarely go unnoticed.  In spite of the therapy I’ve had, I’m still unable to shake the hyper-vigilance I developed to survive in prison.  When I notice that someone has recognized me from my work, I take comfort in the fact that many of these people may now have thought about an issue they might not have thought about earlier.

            I’ve worked with corrections administrators from across the country, and I’ve noticed how uncomfortable some of them were when they first met me.  I looked like they do.   I’m educated like they are.   A colleague once suggested that it might be easier if I looked more like a convict.   It would be easier to think about the problem if it’s happening to someone else, as opposed to the possibility of it happening to someone like themselves.

            I found it gratifying to lend my narrative to the cause and to be involved at the national policy level.    It was thrilling to work with the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, to speak at State Capitals, City Council Hearings, and to testify on Capitol Hill.   I was even invited to the White House for President Bush’s signing of the Prison Rape Elimination Action of 2003 (though, I wasn’t able to go because they changed their mind over the weekend (after I told everyone I knew I was going).   I worked with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to help negotiate survey instruments for the largest most comprehensive study of prison rape ever conducted in the United States.   It's also been quite humbling, for sure – (for who wants to be a poster boy for prisoner rape) and yet I felt privileged to have been a voice for so many that have no voice.  

            I found it extremely gratifying to lend my narrative to the cause.  I even leant that voice in amicus brief, to the U.S. Supreme Court as they decided the issue of whether it was constitutional to send juveniles to prison for life, for crimes other than murder.  I worked with a law firm that took my narrative, along with six others, as examples of juveniles who could have been sentenced to life in prison, but who later went on to make some meaningful contribution to society.  To be a power of example, for something that can affect or inspire change, is an incredibly gratifying feeling.   (See Terrance Jamar Graham vs. Florida.).   The Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life in prison for crimes other than murder is indeed unconstitutional.  

            Given my family history, it was more likely that I’d continue to be caught up in an endless cycle of incarceration.  Yet it was a young corrections administrator who taught me the value of an education.   She inspired in me a life long belief that education opens up possibilities.  It was an education that enabled me to be successful in business.  It was an education that led me to therapy.   It was therapy (a more visceral form of education) that enables me to rise above the voice in my head and to listen to something higher that seems to be guiding me.

            Earlier this year, the Department of Justice released it first-ever estimate of how many people are sexually abused in U.S. detention in a one-year period.   In 2008, the Department says, at least 216,600 people were sexually assaulted in prisons and jails.  That’s almost six hundred people a day – or 25 an hour.  

            The Justice Department generated this number by analyzing it’s own inmate surveys about sexual abuse, mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act.  These surveys were created in recognition of the fact that most inmates do not file a complaint after suffering a sexual assault. 

            During my work with BJS, what was extremely disappointing was that juveniles held in adult detention were excluded from these surveys.   There are an estimated 250,000 youth who are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults each year.   We know that these are the most vulnerable population and these inmates were excluded from the survey.  The Corrections lobby was successful in their efforts to exclude them.   Their rationale was that they’d never get the surveys past the Institutional Review Boards, since these inmates were underage and it would be difficult to ask them questions of a sexual nature without first gaining permission from their parents.  What was the exact nature of those questions?  Have you been raped in the last 12 months?

            I was 17 years old when I was sent to an adult prison, for robbing a photomat with a toy gun.   It was a stupid prank, and I should have been punished, but rape should never have been part of my punishment.   The very thought that I’d be excluded from a survey, asking me if I’ve been raped, is ludicrous.   If I’m old enough to be sent to an adult prison, I should be old enough to be asked if I’ve been raped.   It was a political cop-out and one that I’m still deeply disappointed about.   

             The 216,600 estimate stands in stark contrast to another recent publication – also by the Department of Justice – of “official reports” of sexual abuse filed in prisons and jails nationwide in 2008.   That number is 7,444.   This represents the administrative records reported by the states, also as mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act.   Of these 7,444 official reports, only 932 were substantiated.  According to the report, even when authorities confirmed that staff had sexually abused inmates in their custody, only 42 percent of officers had their cases referred to prosecution, only 23 percent were arrested, and only 3 percent were charged, indicted or convicted; 15 percent were allow to keep their jobs.  

            The only thing positive about these numbers is that they’re being recorded.   For the first time in history, these numbers are being recorded, tracked, and analyzed.   It’s progress, for sure, but funding for this record keeping has been cut and the standards have been slow in coming.  

            From a purely pragmatic standpoint, I understand the resistance on the part of corrections authorities.   They’ve resisted the Prison Rape Elimination Act from the onset.   They resent anybody telling them how to do their jobs.   They don’t want anyone, let alone the federal government, dictating how they should run their jails and prison.   They resist federal dictates, especially if those mandates are not fully funded.

            A former NYC Corrections Commission once told me at a BJS meeting, “We run prisons as long as the convicts allow us to run it.”   He said this in context to the difficult task of balancing all of the various interests (overcrowding, under funding, labor unions, low guard-to-inmate ratios, over-enforcement of rules, etc.).   For any corrections administrator, their job is to basically do whatever they have to do to keep it from blowing up on their watch.   But I (and others) would argue that there are many things that can be done to dramatically reduce the likelihood of rapes from occurring in the first place.   Not the least of which, is to stop ignoring the problem, minimizing it, pretending it’s not happening, turning a blind eye to screams in the night, and placing juveniles in adult prisons where there are older and more predatory inmates.   Simple changes in classification, housing, corrections officer training, and clear cut procedures in responding to allegations of rape, and the prosecution of perpetrators – are all things that can and should be done to communicate a policy and culture of zero tolerance.   Rape is not part of the penalty.   Yet many corrections officers believe that if you don’t want to be raped - stay out of prison.   That attitude alone, whether spoken or not, implies a certain apathy that is akin to tolerance.  

            It is this very attitude that I seek to address by making my feature film based on my book.   Winning the hearts and minds of people is a very difficult task.   Crime and punishment, ‘lock-em up and throw away the key’ is a consciousness that seems to pervade our national psyche.   The mass incarceration that has occurred over the last three decades is strong evidence of this.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, we have an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 of national population, the highest in the world.  While Americans only represent about 5 percent of the world’s population,  one-quarter of the world’s inmates are incarcerated in the United States.  

            I often look at the film, Boys Don’t Cry (1999) as an example of the power of film to help move public consciousness. The film is a dramatization of the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a trangender man who pursues a relationship with a young woman, and is beaten, raped and murdered by his male acquaintances after they discover he is anatomically female.  The picture explores the themes of freedom, courage, identity and empowerment.  It was a difficult story that was beautifully told.   Hillary Swanks performance was outstanding, for which it earned her an Oscar.   The film brought tremendous awareness to the plight of a transgender teen living in rural Nebraska.  The release of the film was concurrent with the murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, which sparked additional public interest.

            Putting a human face on a difficult issue, enables people to identify with the character and is a way of humanizing a subject that is often not talked about.   It’s so easy to dehumanize prisoners.  It’s even easier to joke about dropping the soap – or being placed in a cell with Bubba.

            My goal is to tell a universal story, about coming-of-age, and about dealing with all the normal issues of late adolescence - identity, sexuality, separation from family, and figuring out where and how one fits in the world.   It’s a story of liberation and enlightenment, in the most unusual setting.   Set inside a setting, by the way, that is home to over 2.2 million people.   A setting, I might add, that has over 10 million people cycled through it each year.  

            Prison films of the 30s and 40s tapped into a public consciousness that was more apt to identify with people trapped by the system.   The economic crisis of the times made them more apt to identify with the powerlessness of the convict’s plight.    I think we are closer to that state of being than we’ve seen in a long time.   And it is my hope that that same sentiment can be aroused.

            I realize that all of this is dependent on a flawless execution of the film, which is why I’m at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts.   Shortly after my book came out, I received several offers to purchase the film rights to my story.   I turned them down.   I’m not interested in relinquishing the rights without having some control over the content.   The opportunity to help shape public opinion is too important to surrender for a few thousand dollars. I believe I have a unique opportunity to help shape national discourse, and I need to make my film in order to do that.   Over the last 5 years, I’ve immersed myself in filmmaking.

            I have a story to tell, I have the ability to tell it, and I hope my track record demonstrates a willingness to overcome tremendous odds.   When it comes to independent filmmaking – at NYU -  I’m confident that I’m learning from some of the best talent in the world.   Yet talent alone, won’t cut it.   To make my film, I’ll need to raise about a million dollars.   I’ve tapped my personal savings to fund my activism, my education, and my 2nd years film.  I shot a 22-minute short inside Jackson Prison, the very prison I was housed in over 30 years ago.   I had over 200 people involved in the production.   My intent now is to place the film in competition at major film festivals around the world.   Hopefully, that will help attract collaborators who can help me make my dream a reality.   I realize that my film is not the kind of film that the traditional Hollywood system is likely to fund.  To maintain creative control over the content, I need to do it independently.   I’m hopeful I’ll be able to garner support from individuals and foundations that typically fund social and criminal justice causes.   My involvement in the NYU Reynolds Program has added a deeper understanding of the social entrepreneurial and philanthropic landscape.

            Each day at NYU, has taught me how much more I have to learn.   If I knew, 12 years ago, how difficult my journey was going to be, I’m not sure I would have started it.   But now that I’m on this path, I’m too damn stubborn to stop.
Check out my trailer under FILMS.

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