Prisoner No More

Film by T.J. Parsell takes an unflinching look at his teen strife

By Karen Croke, The Journal News

In 1978, T.J. Parsell was 17, living in Michigan as a member of a family deeply mired in bad decisions. His father, grandfather, several uncles and his older brother had all been incarcerated at one time or another. Yet, even now, 35 years later, he's not sure what spurred him to pick up a toy gun and pretend to rob a pretty girl at a photo booth -- mostly, he says, as a way to get her attention. It was the wrong kind of attention: She handed over $53, which, Parsell says, he took and ran.

He was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to Jackson State Prison, where the scared, skinny, nonviolent teen was immediately singled out. "On my first day there -- the same day that my classmates were getting ready for the prom -- a group of older inmates spiked my drink, lured me down to a cell and raped me," he recounted in a 2006 Op-Ed piece for The New York Times.

It was a pattern of abuse that continued for nearly five years of incarceration. Along the way, Parsell was "sold" to an inmate who eventually ended up protecting his "fish," came to terms with the fact that he was gay, fell in love with a fellow inmate and managed to complete high school behind bars.

Against all the odds, Parsell, who struggled with drugs and alcohol, graduated from college and had a successful 20-year career in the software industry. Now a third-year film student at the Kanbar Institute of Film & Television at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Parsell will be at The Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls on Saturday to present three short films; two are based on his bestselling book, "Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison," (Da Capo Press, 2007).

Although not quite ready for the Sundance Film Festival, Parsell was nonetheless thrilled to be in the company of Martin Scorcese and Helen Mirren last week at the National Board of Review's annual film awards gala. "Not as a filmmaker, no," he laughs. "As NYU. film students, we get to go to the screenings, and also to volunteer. I was a volunteer at the event."

The revised FBI definition says that rape is "the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object," without the consent of the victim. Also constituting rape under the new definition is "oral penetration by a sex organ of another person" without consent.

Still, his fledgling film career is a positive goal. "I am having a second childhood and run around with these young people," he says. "But I have my moments; you know, you have these raging arguments with yourself, 'should I be doing this?' I am 51 and I figure if I don't do it now..."

Parsell's film is still a work in progress, but it's as unflinching and candid as his book. He says the retelling is part of recovery, so much so that he speaks out all over the country; he served as as president of Stop Prisoner Rape (now known as Just Detention International) and has served as a consultant to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

"I have a really amazing adult life; I feel very fortunate, exceptionally fortunate that I was able to get out," he says. "On one level, I am a testament to the inherent ability of the troubled teen to be able to transcend his circumstances and become productive. I deserved to be punished, there was no question about that," he continues. "And there are people who say, 'you get what you deserve'; that if you don't want to be raped, stay out of prison. But, you see a young kid going in there, and yes, he is troubled, but he doesn't deserve that. I think that's what I am trying to capture."

"T.J. is an amazing person; what's he's done is to turn incredible hardship and injustice into advocacy to help keep others safe," says Lovisa Stannow, executive direction for Just Detention International. "He's been an exhaustless champion against prison rape and trying to ensure teenage offenders are placed in appropriate settings."

Parsell actually filmed part of his film in Jackson State Prison, and scenes were shot in the the very cell where he was once incarcerated. "Shooting our film at Jackson Prison was actually empowering; for eight days, I owned the prison I was in," he says. "I was low key about who I was, so when a guy from the prison said, 'I am going to Google you tonight,' I was a little nervous. The next day, he came back and said, "I Googled you, and I realized you are responsible for a lot of the rules we have in here. That was an incredible experience."

The Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed in 2003, is part of the reason for those rule changes. Says Parsell, "in the last eight years, there's not a correction department in this country that hasn't been involved in the conversation; everyone has been engaged."

Laying bare the story of what happened to him in prison was also emotional for his family, but Parsell says he prepared them all, and in a strange twist, it was their support that helped him move on with his project. "My parents, as any parents would be that lost sons, were filled with all kinds of questions, 'what could they have done differently?' and fueled by that, they got behind me. Simple awareness is curative," Parsell says.

Parsell says that the constant retelling of his story and reliving the past is never easy, but necessary. "Activism is a way to take that stuff and change it into a vehicle for change."