By Emily J Weitz
Most people in TJ Parsell’s position do not live to tell the tale. Some of the many thousands of victims of prison rape may still be breathing. But few emerge like Parsell who, after years of therapy, went to NYU film school with the specific goal of relating a truth to a world that does not want to hear it.
Parsell wrote a book, called “Fish,” which was published in 2006. But he decided that film was the way to reach the widest audience, to really change hearts and minds. Because perhaps the biggest problem with prison rape is that it is accepted by our society.
“There are people who are very unsympathetic about what happens to prisoners,” says Parsell. “‘You don’t want to be raped?’ they say. ‘Stay out of prison.’ It’s easy to feel that way in the abstract, but once you put a human face on it, it becomes harder to have that kind of callousness.”
Parsell, with smile lines around his mouth and soft, gentle eyes, has the kind of face that could create that change. And when you see the actor who plays him, as a frightened seventeen-year-old kid who just robbed a Fotomat with a toy gun, the callousness dissipates completely. TJ Parsell went to a maximum-security adult prison at the age of 17. He was gang raped and made impossible choices to survive. He is convinced the reason he did make it through, where some of his friends did not, was to create change.
“My goal is to present a character that the audience begins to care about, and begins to understand,” says Parsell. “The sad reality is that the majority of the people who are victimized are the weaker inmates and the kids. We don’t understand why young men go into prison nonviolent and come out violent. It’s raising a consciousness about this situation.”
The culture in prison, Parsell explains, only reprieves the most violent people. In the first short film that Parsell will share at Guild Hall next week, you can see the main character as he internalizes the truth of what’s about to happen to him. Scrawny and soft-spoken, he tries to get tough, to be intimidating, and all the audience can do is frown sadly at the obvious futility.
“The culture inside of prison is hyper masculine,” explains Parsell. “The threat of rape touches on everyone, not just those victimized. In order to avoid being victimized you need to be hyper-masculine, hyper-violent just to avoid it. And the system supports this hyper-masculine model. These men go into prison and have to be this way to survive, and we then expect them to be normal and check their way of being at the door. I am as angry at the administrators who allowed it to happen as I am at those who perpetrated the rape.”
The opportunity with these films is not only to raise awareness, but to create change. And that is happening already.
“The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 established a national commission that studied the problem and came up with standards for the investigation, prevention, treatment of victims, and training for staff,” says Parsell. “For the first time, we started recording the number of incidences… This body of work resulted in national standards released by the Attorney General in May of this year. This is enormous progress.”
But Parsell’s work is far from over. His greatest goal is that kids are never sent into adult prisons.
“This should never happen,” says Parsell. “Once you’re in it, you’re completely powerless, at the mercy of these holders of power.”
This Saturday evening at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, Parsell will screen both of his short films and answer questions. In the first film, which is shot in the Sag Harbor jail, a young Parsell is depicted with the psychologist who callously told him he’d be raped when he went inside, and then sent him to the maximum security prison.
“That was the moment where it was like, ‘Life as you know it is over. You’re now in this new world. The safety net as I knew it was pulled out from under me… This man who’s an authority is telling me things I can’t fathom. If this man represented the system, are all of them like that?”
The second film focuses on the choices Parsell and others like him are forced to make.
“I went into a protective pairing at the end,” says Parsell. “Prison is a series of painful compromises. As the queens told me, ‘Choose one who can protect you.’ It was a bargain to survive. Was it a choice? What happens if you don’t?”
Many questions will be raised in the viewing of these films, and Parsell will be there to discuss all of them. At the heart of these films, though, is humanity.
“No one deserves to be raped,” says Parsell. “But it’s so prevalent, and the late night jokes about bending over to pick up soap… That’s evidence of a tolerance. As a society we are condoning this barbaric behavior. We are supposed to be a civilized society that bars against cruel and unusual punishment. Rape is that: an egregious violation of human rights.”
Parsell is deeply grateful for the opportunity to share his story, and credits the village of Sag Harbor, the Historical Society, and the Police Department with much of his success.
“This town has been so supportive of me,” he says. “And I try to convey a sense of hopefulness at the end. When I sat down to write the book, I asked myself what it was like and how I survived it. The bigger story is: What am I doing with it? Affecting change.”