Review: T.J. Parsell – Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison

58173Author:T.J. Parsell
Publisher:Da Capo Press
Genre:M/M Prison
ISBN: 9780786717934

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

When seventeen-year-old T.J. Parsell held up the local Photo Mat with a toy gun, he was sentenced to four and a half to fifteen years in prison. The first night of his term, four older inmates drugged Parsell and took turns raping him. When they were through, they flipped a coin to decide who would “own” him. Forced to remain silent about his rape by a convict code among inmates (one in which informers are murdered), Parsell’s experience that first night haunted him throughout the rest of his sentence. In an effort to silence the guilt and pain of its victims, the issue of prisoner rape is a story that has not been told. For the first time Parsell, one of America’s leading spokespeople for prison reform, shares the story of his coming of age behind bars. He gives voice to countless others who have been exposed to an incarceration system that turns a blind eye to the abuse of the prisoners in its charge. Since life behind bars is so often exploited by television and movie re-enactments, the real story has yet to be told. Fish is the first breakout story to do that
** Spoiler alert **

Early in his memoirs, T.J. Parsell doesn’t yet know that he is gay. He wondered about that, but he makes a young woman pregnant. He discovers his homosexuality in prison. The theme of his memoirs is entirely focused on his coming of age, his discovery of his homosexuality and his coming out.

But one day, he commits a crime: he robs a Fotomat with a toy gun. But US laws consider that even if the gun was a toy, Parsell nevertheless committed a robbery and he was sentenced and imprisoned for that crime.

He was repeatedly raped in prison until Slide Steps “offered” himself as his protector. Later, at his final prison, Parsell meets Paul King and falls in love with him. King teaches him how to survive in prison.

At the end of his incarceration, Parsell returned home, continued his studies and became vice president of a computer firm. He participated in many groups to help prisoners in general, but especially to teach them to avoid prison rapes. Subsequently, a law was passed allowing prisoners to denounce their rapists, which they could not do before.

This is good book, especially if you are interested in any aspect of homosexuality and sex among inmates. It offers an encouraging perspective in the sense that the author managed to get through it all and fared very well in his life outside jail.

“Fish” is better written than “I cried, You Didn’t Listen”, a book addressing the same topic that I read lately. Parsell is more educated, so he knows English better. He even allows a few small jokes regarding how some prisoners talk, “But for the moment, I was preoccupied with trying to figure out if, don’t lose no good time was a triple negative, and if so, did that mean I didn’t want to don’t lose no, or if I wanted to not don’t lose some?” loll
“Don’t lose no good time” was said by another prisoner at the beginning of Parsell’s incarceration.

Two instructive quotes:
“According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, we house 2.2 million prisoners in the United States–more than any other country in the world. And an estimated 13.5 million more pass through the justice system each year, including over 100,000 teenagers who are housed in adult facilities.
Sexual violence is a crime that preys on the vulnerable. In some states, children as young as fourteen have been sentences to adult facilities, and in many cases, they fit the profile of likely sexual assault victims because they are small in stature and inexperienced in the ways of prisons.”

“Most people who want to be tough on crime don’t care what happens to inmates. But they should care, because 95 percent of all prisoners are eventually released back into society, indelibly marked by the violence they have seen or experienced.”

But I nonetheless preferred “I cried, You Didn’t Listen” written by another convict named Dwight (Sonny) Abbott. Perhaps I preferred it because I read it first. But I think this is mostly due to the fact that Sonny was first jailed when he was only eight years old without ever having committed any crime and that his experience was so significant and brutal that he could not cope. He is seventy-two years old now and is living in a kind of hospital facility for inmates, which he’ll probably never get out of. I found “I Cried…” story more significant mainly because it not only emphasizes the prisoners’ sexuality, but it describes also all other forms of violence, abuse and every difficulties prisoners face each day of their life.

So I give “Fish” 4 hearts.

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