Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison

I was recently involved in a consultation to address the safety and needs of sexual minorities in corrections. As I learned from my two days with the consultation team, “in corrections” refers to adolescents in the juvenile justice system to adults in prison and just about every setting you can imagine in between.

One of the pleasant surprises of the consultation was the opportunity to talk with T.J. Parsell, author of the book, Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison. He had just finished a 20-minute film about his experiences, and he graciously shared that with the consultation group.

It was a sobering, emotionally compelling look at the experience of a teenager who was placed in an adult prison. The people in the room who worked in corrections indicated that it was an accurate depiction of corrections through the eyes of a young man. I shared with T.J. that I downloaded his book at the end of the viewing.

Fish (the book) is an extended and more detailed account of T.J.’s experiences in prison. It is not an easy read in this sense:  if you are not that familiar with corrections, it has a number of disturbing themes, experiences, and events that might be difficult for the reader. However, for those interested in learning more about the inner workings of prison life, it is a compelling read. You gain an understanding of the challenges in establishing oneself in a corrections environment and the reality of rape/sexual assault in these settings.

T.J. Parsell identifies himself as a gay man today, so much of the book also deals with how he navigated his sexual identity in the context of prison. Sexual identity development has been studied now for several years, and we recognize that key milestone events are reported by adults looking back on their adolescence. These include first experiences of same-sex attraction, engaging in same-sex behavior, labeling oneself as gay, disclosing that identity to others, and having an ongoing same-sex relationship.

There are few studies of sexual minorities navigating these milestone events in the context of correctional facilities. However, we do have a study being completed (for a dissertation) that does consider climate for sexual minorities in the context of the juvenile justice system (see the ISSI web site or the ISSI Facebook page for any updates). Obviously, these milestone events would be experienced quite differently in a setting in which same-sex encounters are more common, and in which the sexual assault of an adolescent/young adult was also reported.

So the book is in some ways quite terrifying as it is written through the eyes of a 17-year-old who is sent to an adult prison. It has many graphic scenes and events, some of which might be particularly challenging for the reader. However, to the extent that it depicts the realities that await some men in corrections, it is important for those who work in these settings and for other stakeholders to gain more of an insight into the challenges and possibilities for making improvements, particularly as we identify groups that are particularly at-risk in such settings.

T.J.’s experiences ultimately led him to be an advocate for prison reform. Specifically, he has been an outspoken advocate of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), an act passed by Congress in 2003. PREA was enacted by Congress to address concerns about the sexual victimization and abuse of persons in U.S. correctional facilities. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Prison Fellowship was an early and ardent supporter of PREA. People I met who otherwise reported difficult experiences with Christians reported good experiences with Prison Fellowship, which is a testimony to the gains to be found in identifying superordinate goals toward which we can work.

I hope that this recent consultation and the work that has begun by identifying the issues and concerns faced by sexual minorities in corrections will be an extension of some of these discussions. Perhaps these discussions will lead to improvements in safety that reflect the high regard we share for the dignity and worth of all persons.

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