“Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison”–behind bars

Parsell,T.J., “Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison”.

Carroll & Graf, 2006

Behind Bars

Amos Lassen

Gay men have always had fantasies about prisons and sex. Countless porn movies have been made about sex in prisons and Jeff Stryker had a great hit with “Powertool” which showed him having sex with almost an entire prison population. The HBO mini series “OZ” was a great success as we watched new inmates being abused. We have heard of prison rapes and I must admit it does sound very exciting (if you are into that kind of thing). T.J Parsell gives the real lowdown on prison rape and what a young man goes through while in the big house and it is fascinating. In his book “Fish”, Parsell takes under behind bars to the reality of prison life—the kind of life that I hope none of us ever have to encounter.

Parsell is the president and founder of Stop Prisoner Rape relates the true story of his incarceration at age 17. Parsell comes from a family which has always had trouble with law enforcement. His father and his grandfather as well as his uncle had been imprisoned and he was abandoned by his mother when he was very young and was raised by his alcoholic father and a stepmother who treated him with hostility. Parsell, like his older brother, landed in jail (for robbing a photo store with a toy gun). At 17 years old he was given a sentence  of four and a half to fifteen years in an adult prison. He was tall, he was good looking and he was, what is known as, a fish. He was sent to Riverside Correctional Facility which was a close custody jail for inmates who had long sentences with inmates who were mentally ill or in protective custody or both and “was notorious for having lots of sissies.

He was taken under the wing of an older inmate—Chet—who told him that he had to have family in jail in order to survive and that life in prison was too difficult to go it alone. Having no idea what family meant, he became a hot property and soon found out that family did not mean what he thought. After having a few drinks of alcohol, a la jailhouse (spiked with Thorazine which is a sedative used to treat the mentally ill), he soon found out that his family was one that had sex together.  He was dragged into a cell and raped by several inmates in turn. By flipping a coin, the inmates decided to whom Parsell was to belong and he ended up with Slide Step who was serving a sentence of 15-20 years. He became known as “Squeeze”. He was forced to give up the little bit of independence he had in jail and lost all control of his body which meant that he was now just a sexual toy. He felt that it was better to have to have sex with just one man than with whomever happened to catch him and use him sexually. He was lucky that Slide Step was not one to share and Squeeze was a one man fish. He says he somewhat enjoyed the attention and Slide Step took good care of him.

Squeeze had begun to discover his own sexuality and he found out that he was indeed gay after his first consensual sexual experience with another man. But his relationship with Slide Step was not to last. He was sent to the county jail to await sentencing and having no family with him, he was forced back into a gang rape scene. He was also being harassed by a probation offer whose advances he had rebuffed and because of this he received the worst report that could be given to him and therefore received the terrible sentence he got. After the sentencing, there was another gang rape but this time there was a god outcome. He was sent to a medium security prison for men under twenty one. Here the focus was on education and rehabilitation. Still his problems were not over and there was another rape and he was traded to a brutal inmate who caused him harm during a sexual encounter and he ended up in the infirmary and was separated from his “owner”.

Parsell was then taken care of by a friendly prison administrator and received his high school diploma and began to take college courses. Ultimately he met someone his own age and Paul became his lover as well as a comrade who helped him to navigate the prison structure. Paul explained to him that it was a necessity to find a man to fall in love with him and in that way it was easy to get protection. When one discovers what turns another guy on, the other person becomes dependent and then it is easy to gain the upper hand. It is only necessary then to use sex as a means to an end—a way to get what is needed. The lover starts off as the driver and ends up as the passenger. Unfortunately his relationship with Paul ended when the latter escaped and Squeeze did “what ‘I’ had to do”. He was transferred back to Riverside and to Slide Step. Finally finishing his sentence in 1982, he left prison, never to return, moved to New York and went to college and  began to build a successful software industry.

This is not just a rags to riches story but a brutal attack on the prison system. It is an amazing story on how one can rise from the pits of the world to be a contributing member of society. After a life of abuse, Parsell has “made it” and has made it his mission to see that the treatment he received behind bars will not happen again—to anyone, it is a heartwarming but horrible story and certainly disembodies the myths of prison myths of prison life. The glamour of gay porn is dispelled and the idea of being gang raped loses its fascination.

Parsell looks at the issues of sexual identity, separation from family, awareness of the large issues of life and brutality in ways that will not be easily forgotten. When a teenager is cut off from the support structures of society, he becomes just a number and his life no longer belongs only to him. What a wonderful read. I heartily recommend it.

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