TJ Parsell: Combatting Sexual Assault in the Prison System (Inside & Out)


[music]>>TJ Parsell: You know every time I talk I always say that, you know, what I did was wrong, I broke the law, I deserved to be punished and I may have even deserved to go to prison, but what I would submit is that I didn’t deserve what I got once I arrived there. I was in prison from 17 to 21 at a time when most kids are off to college or lot of kids are off to college. I like to say that I got my first undergraduate degree in Prison Culture. You know, late adolescence is a time when we’re all dealing with issues of sexuality, identity, separation from family, and figuring out where and how we fit in the world. On my first day in General Population, some inmates offered me a drink of spud juice pruno — homemade liquor — and what I didn’t know was they spiked my drink with Thorazine, a heavy sedative they gave the mentally ill prisoners, and then I was gang-raped. And when these men were done, what they did was they literally flipped a coin in the air to decide which one of them would own me. And for the balance of my time in prison, I was the property of another inmate.>>TJ Parsell: New York State recently hired me to write and direct two inmate orientation videos on Prison Sexual Safety. And these are videos that will be seen not only by every prisoner in the state of New York but all incoming prisoners. Giving them very practical advice on how to avoid sexual abuse. And what was exciting about the project was they allowed us to use actual inmates to deliver the information. And things are very different now than they were when I was in prison 30 years ago. You know, that the notion of you know, the violent gang rapes where somebody gets grabbed a cell and ten guys jump on you — that’s very rare, now. It’s more subtle manipulation. It’s what we call in the States “grooming.” It’s a process of trickery. Every inmate coming into prison is afraid of rape. That’s probably the number-one concern in their minds. But what they’re afraid of what they’re looking for is not the way it actually is, but the predators know this, and they play on that, and they take advantage that. So, they will slip up and befriend the newcomer — the new inmate coming in. Or they’ll trick them by giving them things and getting them in debt, so that they owe them. Or they’ll tell them, “Listen, the only reason nothing’s happened to you is because I’ve been looking out for you. Doing it with me is better than doing it with whoever can catch you.”>>TJ Parsell: I was at a place in my life where I wanted to go back and do some some work in this area. It was almost — when I sat down to write my book — I wrote a book about my experience in prison, and the writing of the book was really, I think, an ongoing continuation of my therapy. I wanted to purge that experience. I wanted to understand it. And, at the same time, I got involved in a lot of of advocacy work around prisoner rape. I’m the former president of Stop Prisoner Rape. I testified on Capitol Hill and supported the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The Prison Rape Elimination Act was the first ever federal legislation to address rape in prison. I worked with the PREA commission. I worked with the US Bureau of Justice Statistics on the survey instruments for probably one of the most comprehensive studies of prisoner rape ever conducted. I’ve helped write some of the standards, and I’ve been blessed to have been able to participate on many levels over the last dozen years on PREA work. You know, most of my contribution has just been to speak as a survivor. And to, you know, lend a voice for the countless voiceless inmates who aren’t able to, for any number of reasons. You know, I suffered many years with shame about what went on in prison. I blamed myself for many years. It was, after all, my choices that landed me in prison. Sexual violence is not something easy to talk about. But I hit a turning point where it was — when I got out of prison, when I was 21, I was determined that what happened in prison was going to stay in prison. I was never going to talk about it. And I kind of went through this arc of not wanting to talk about it to wanting to tell the world what goes on and shatter the silence of what’s going on in our nation’s prisons.>>TJ Parsell: When I went in to do the project, I had, you know, a hidden agenda. It’s, you know, I mean, it wasn’t hidden; I was pretty open about it. But I had an agenda and it was: here’s an opportunity where we can affect the inmate culture. We can influence the inmate culture and make it a subtle shift that could have an enormous impact. A couple years ago I had the privilege of going on a delegation to South Africa where we toured a number of prisons there. They have a lot of sexual violence in prisons there, and they’re HIV rates are off the charts. While we toured these prisons, I was struck by one thing in particular. There were two prisons where sexual abuse didn’t happen. One was on a Muslim cellblock, because the Muslim Brotherhood just doesn’t tolerate that. And the other was in the political prisons. And that’s because there was this brotherhood among men. And so, you know, from that experience I’ve often said, if there’s a way that we could get the inmates to take this on themselves, where, if the the men on the cellblocks say, “This isn’t going to happen,” it’s not happening. And I think, you know, the thing that’s always puzzled me is that there’s a hierarchy in prison and, at the very bottom of that hierarchy are the child molesters. There’s — listen, a lot of inmates suffered sexual abuse before prison. So inmates don’t like child molesters, there. They despise them. And just a step above that is rapists. Though they don’t necessarily hate rapists, they don’t have a lot of respect for rapists. And I always wondered, well, if if there’s such disrespect or hatred towards this kind of sexual abuse, why do we tolerate it in our prisons? And, when I pose that question to the inmates, a lot of them thought “well…” There’s another part of the inmate code that inmates operate under and it’s this thing called “mind your business.” If it’s got nothing to do with you, you don’t get involved, right? So, between that and snitching, these are two very difficult hurdles to overcome. But, if we can start by just carving out that exception on snitching, that can make a big difference. But, in the process of enrolling the inmates in what we were doing and letting them take ownership, I think that we’ve created an opportunity where it does become their business. And, again, if the inmates say this isn’t going to happen in our cellblock, it’s not going to happen.

12 thoughts on “TJ Parsell: Combatting Sexual Assault in the Prison System (Inside & Out)

  1. Sexual violence is hard to talk about, even harder for a MAN. The best way to move…. Is to do what This man Tim is doin. Keep up the good work. God bless u.

  2. T.J. u truly r a remarkable man. I use to b one of those Fools who would say if i got raped in prison i would kill that or those muthfuckers, @ 17yrs old i weighed 140lbs, i wouldnt have done shit! I believe self preservation is in all of us, u did what u had to do to survive. Im a 52 yr old man, father of 2, i dont even want to imagine my kids having to endure what u had to go through. U Sir r 100% MAN. Your inner strenght is super human. I salute you!

  3. Prison rape isn't about sex.  Its about power.  When your locked up and deprived of your liberty and freedom, by raping another inmate and making him your "bitch" – you effectively lift yourself up 1 notch as there is now someone lower down the pecking order than you.   (just trying to understand the psychology of it)

  4. That’s right TJ, if the inmates say it isn’t going to happen, it isn’t going to happen. You absolutely deserve a Nobel Prize, love you, you are amazing! Keep on keeping on! It wasn’t all for nothing, God meant it for good! Blessings brother!

  5. Seems strange he had certian things happen to him making it the focus of him life he's even makin a living his whole life is dedacated from 17 to21 wondder if he ever went to collage if not its just more impressive. Helping people worth and he's looks like hes put his past ways behind .💯way to go TJ tell your story

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