Christopher Lisotta: Boy behind bars, The Advocate, November 7, 2006.
After holding up a Fotomat with a toy gun in 1978, T.J. Parsell was convicted of armed robbery and spent four years in Michigan’s correctional system. On the first day spent with the general prisoner population at Riverside Correctional Facility, Parsell was drugged by four inmates who then took turns raping him. He was 17 and just beginning to realize he was gay. After the assault the other prisoners flipped a coin to see who would “own” Parsell, whom they threatened to kill if he reported the incident to authorities.
It would not be the last time Parsell was sexually violated before his release at age 21. During that time—detailed in Parsell’s compelling and intelligent new memoir, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison (Carroll & Graf)—Parsell also, in order to protect himself from the larger population, negotiated a long-term sexual relationship with a stronger inmate he calls “Slide Step.” He learned the complicated prison hierarchy and behavioral codes that deemed some homosexual acts acceptable, some fodder for barter, and others reason for attempted murder.
Parsell eventually was transferred to a medium-security prison, where he took part in publishing an inmate newspaper. There he found a sympathetic mentor and had his first fully consensual gay relationship, with a young inmate he calls Paul—a man he loved deeply but lost touch with for 20 years after his release. In 2002, Parsell reached out to Paul in a long, heartfelt letter—and learned that Paul had spent most of his adult life behind bars.
In contrast, Parsell stayed clean and free, eventually becoming a top executive at a technology firm. He found a life partner and had a daughter. He’s now president of the human rights group Stop Prisoner Rape and a consultant to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.
Some might say the threat of prison rape is a good deterrent to crime, while others might say that if you commit a crime, that’s one of the consequences.
I do understand that mentality is out there, and it’s a strong one, and I think it’s fear-based. I’m worried about crime as well, and I’m fearful of walking down certain streets.
I think people should be held accountable for what they do. I certainly made some awful choices. I deserved to be punished. What I would submit is, I didn’t deserve what I got. Rape should not have been part of my punishment.
The sad reality is the majority of people who find themselves in that position are young, nonviolent, first-time offenders—kids that made really dumb choices, where there is a complete lack of sympathy or a willingness to do anything. We’ve had a couple presidents of Stop Prisoner Rape who were antiwar protesters, were thrown in jail for civil disobedience, and were raped. I had a friend of mine who was down in Miami, with no criminal record, who was arrested because he cruised an undercover cop and was thrown in the Miami jail for the weekend and was raped.
This is the kind of thing that can impact anyone.
What has the group Stop Prisoner Rape been able to do over the past couple of years?
We were instrumental in getting the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 passed, the first federal legislation to address the issue. It established a national commission, which is spending a couple years studying the problem, holding public hearings, and will next year issue standards that will impact all federal, state, and local prisons, jails, and [federal immigration] detention facilities.
Whether prison rape can be eliminated is probably too ambitious, but I think it can be greatly reduced. The more vulnerable populations can be protected by proper classification. Changing attitudes is an important part of it. One of my personal missions is to address homophobia among corrections officials. Homophobia is one of those underlying causes that help create this atmosphere of impunity. The way they treat gay and trans prisoners, it sends a message to the inmates—the way they fail to respond to complaints, and fail to take them seriously, and further this environment that can become quite dangerous.
How has your book impacted your relationship with your current partner?
Ultimately, it brought us much closer, but I say that “ultimately.” There were a couple of times in this process where I really felt like I was going crazy. I tested the boundaries of my partner’s commitment to me. Hitting some of these pockets in the writing was extremely painful, beyond anything I did in therapy, where you can talk around an issue and take your time.
But when you write you really have to go back there. My sanity was tested a few times. I’m blessed with a number of friends who are therapists, and my partner is a therapist. I love him more now than I ever would have. He’s just been there to provide that foundation for me.
Your book brings up some uncomfortable things about race in prison culture. Do you think that as a successful white man, your book is taken more seriously than if you were poor and black?
I’ve heard marginalized people of all types say there are certain doors that are open to white middle-class heterosexual men and not necessarily open to others, and I know that’s true. I would say that is a dimension of my reason for going ahead and addressing the racial dynamic of the story.
I was actually into the story and then made the decision that I had to go back and add some of that, because it occurred to me there was no way to tell the story if I didn’t address that point honestly. I tried to humanize everyone, even my perpetrators, because they have stories as well. It’s easy for us to dehumanize prison inmates. But the fact of the matter is, for white middle-class kids we have rehab; for everybody else we have prisons and jails, and they are busting at the seams with stories like mine and the guys whose stories I share.
With the inmate Paul you found love. How does that relationship fit into your life?
There’s nothing like your first true love, that first heartbreak. That’s a place that Paul will always hold. When I sat down to write, I went online to see what information was out there. And I found the [Michigan] Department of Corrections Web site. In the offender tracking system I punched his number. I punched it in, and his picture came up.
That was a painful moment for me. I just went out to my studio and just sobbed.
And then I wrote him the letter. And the letter helped crystallize in my mind the arc and the structure of the story and how I was going to tell it. In Paul’s letters and subsequent letters, he is at his core a good man and a good guy. He just made awful, awful choices, and it broke my heart to see he spent his whole life in there.