In what would turn out to be a horrible mistake with tragic consequences, seventeen-year-old Tim Parsell holds up a Fotomat with a toy gun. The stunt had been a gag but the girl behind the counter thinks the gun is real and hands a small sum of cash over to Tim who takes it and walks home. Tim is arrested and booked for armed robbery. He is convicted and sentenced to up to 15 years in the Michigan prison system (he serves 4 years). It doesn’t matter that the gun was a toy, the employee thought it was real and believed she was in mortal danger so the charge of “armed robbery” stands.
According to Michigan law Tim is an adult at 17.
Tim is sent to an adult close-security prison (akin to maximum security with extended time outside of prison cells). He enters an alternate society behind locked cells, prison gates, and under the watch of armed guards. While the criminal justice system looms in the background, a large amorphous machine that is inconceivably powerful and fundamentally unjust, Parsell’s memoir centers on the lives and dynamics of the prisoners and life inside the prison. It is a terrifying world of hierarchy, inmate code and deception. New prisoners are known as fish and like other fish Tim enters prison life with little knowledge of the rules and how to survive. Something as innocent as accepting a cigarette from an inmate may be entrapment.
On Tim’s first day in the general prison population, he is drawn into a deceitful plot by a group of men pretending to befriend him. He senses something is off in the way the ringleader speaks to him (in a sort of cunning charm and long, suggestive glances). The men offer Tim ‘spud juice’ (home made prison liquor), and he joins them in drinking. What Tim doesn’t know is that the drink is spiked with Thorazine, a heavy tranquillizer. The drug takes effect and Tim is brutally gang raped, unable to so much as call for help. The drug is paralyzing. Once the sexual assault ends, the perpetrators flip a coin to determine who will own Tim. There after he is the property of the coin-toss winner, a man known as Slide Step.
Despite the conditional relationship between Tim and Slide Step, the two men share an intimate bond. In exchange for sexual relations Slide Step –an inmate with high respect and status amongst the other prisoners– protects Tim. The two develop a closeness and intimacy that would be hard to understand outside of the context of trauma and the terror of prison.
Parsell’s honest account of incarceration in the Michigan prison system centers on sexual violence, exploitation, prison hierarchy, and inmate code. Reading the book kept me emotionally engaged and often terrified for Tim. As I continued to read I didn’t know how he could possibly survive his remaining sentence. Even when his term was nearly over and he had only a year to go, I wondered how he would make it. The tension never let up. I was fearful that injustice would strike again and he would not be released. I was deeply saddened when Tim was transferred to a new facility and without the protection of Slide Step, he was gang raped a second time, more violently than the first. It was even more heartbreaking when word of Tim’s sexual assault spread through the prison and he was targeted further and subject to ongoing harassment.
Throughout the story my thoughts returned to the fact that Tim was a seventeen year old boy who was raped and forced into sexual slavery for robbing a Fotomat with a toy gun.
After reading the book I found out that Tim (T.J. Parsell) is a human rights activist and has spent several decades working to change the conditions for prisoners and to end prison rape. In his prisoner advocacy work, Parsell often states that he feels he deserved to be punished for his crime, but did not deserve to be brutally raped and exploited. It is admirable that he acknowledges the traumatic impact the robbery must have had on the sales woman. I agree with him. However, I couldn’t help but think of the things I myself had done as a teenager and the trouble that friends of mine had gotten into. Teenagers do stupid things sometimes. Tim got caught and injustice repeatedly intervened in his young life. I agree with a need for contrition for a stupid, hurtful act — but how can justice be reached in the context of a system that subjects teenagers (and sometimes children) to torture?
Paresell continues to work towards changing the prison system and protecting prisoners from sexual violence. He bravely uses his own story to shine a light on the broken prison system and give voice to the many victims of prison rape. In his book Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison, Parsell gives an empowered voice and dignity to the many prisoners who have suffered rape and exploitation. He has also demonstrated the courage to forge a path for all of us who have experienced trauma and the re-traumatizing effects of societal shame and stigmatization. I deeply admire his talent, courage, and insight.
Links about the book and the author
Fish the Movie is in development:
The author’s T.J. Parsell’s website:
Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison on Amazon:
T.J. Parsell talks about prison reform: