T.J. Parsell has written a book called Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison which tells the story of the truth behind all those ‘dropping the soap in prison’ jokes. Parsell was locked up in 1978 for a couple of years when he was a fairly naive 17 year old boy. His family was poor and uneducated and his crime, robbery with a fake gun, was misguided and stupid more than anything else. But even if his crime had been more severe, he did not deserve to be gang-raped early on during his stay and systematically forced into sex throughout his time in prison. Being a ‘fish’ (a ‘first-timer’ or ‘new arrival’ in prison slang) he was an easy target.
Many years after his release, Parsell was the president of Stop Prisoner Rape and he is currently a consultant to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. His experience in prison is rule rather than exception; that much is clear from the beginning of the book. Lock a rowdy group of men in together without a sexual release and they turn into sexual predators, the strong preying on the weak. ‘Boys’ are forced to find a ‘man’ to protect them in return for sex. This is not loving sex or erotic sex, it is a business-like transaction at best, a violent transaction at worst. If they don’t find a man to protect them, they are more likely to be assaulted and raped on a regular basis. Both straight and gay ‘boys’ find themselves pushed into this role, or ‘turned out’ (to stay with prison terminology).
Parsell’s story becomes more complex, because he was starting to realise that he was gay around the time that he was locked up. Just as he was beginning to be aware of sexual feelings for men, he was forced to act on them against his will. For a long time he still stayed ‘in the closet’ however, as there are odd double standards in prison. Very effeminate gay men, especially transvestites, are seen as precious commodities, as they are the closest a lot of the inmates will get to a ‘real’ woman until they are released. But if you are known to be gay, flamboyant or not, it is assumed that you won’t mind having sex with pretty much any guy, meaning you are fair game. Following this logic, a heterosexual woman would want to have sex with any and all men she encounters.
Boundaries between gay and straight blur in prison. Most straight men there do not mind getting a blowjob from a guy or being on top and do not consider that to make them gay in any way. They are simply taking care of a basic need. It is a very ‘down low’ way of thinking. But to be on the receiving end of oral or anal sex or to masturbate a guy would make you gay and would be a blow to your manhood and reputation. Therefore the ‘boys’ who have been ‘turned out’, be they straight or gay originally, are seen as fundamentally lacking in masculinity because of what they do. Two ‘boys’ having sex together would not be seen as a threat to their men because it would be seen, in a deeply twisted way, as ‘lesbian’ sex.
Parsell’s story is well-written and gives a fascinating glimpse into the world of sexual politics in prison. The story gets more complex as things turn semi-romantic with his ‘man’ and later on in the book, Parsell falls in love for the first time with another ‘boy’. Racial relations and well-intentioned but illogical laws also factor into the story. The memoir has a somewhat open ending, stopping at a point that makes narrative sense but leaves you wondering what happened during the last years in prison. There is a short follow-up, telling us what the most important people from the memoir are up to these days, but the last years in prison remain a blank spot. There is also a bittersweet correspondence between Parsell and his first real lover and a short explanation of the reason why Parsell decided to drop his previous career to become the ‘poster child’ for prison rape.
What I missed was a more extensive update on the state of affairs in prisons these days, many years after Parsell’s incarceration. From what he does say however, the things he wrote about still go on, because the guards are lacking in numbers or turning a blind eye and because sexual offenders are not prosecuted. People’s psyches are still being violated and not just their minds: rates of HIV infection among prisoners are estimated to be five to ten times higher than outside of prison. Parsell’s book serves its purpose both as a gripping read and a call to action. Let’s hope that the people in charge will be able to get over their secondhand shame, stop averting their eyes and start facing the problem.