“When T.J. Parsell held up the local Photo Mat with a toy gun, he was sentenced to four and a half to fifteen years in adult prison. Forced to remain silent by a convict code, what Parsell experienced that first night haunted him throughout his sentence. In an effort to silence the guilt and pain of its victims, the issue of prisoner rape is a story that has not been told. For the first time Parsell, one of America's leading spokespeople for prison reform, shares his story of coming of age behind bars. He gives voice to countless others who have been exposed to an incarceration system that turns a blind eye to the abuse of the prisoners in its charge. Since life behind bars is so often exploited by television and movie re-enactments, the real story has yet to be told. Fish is the first breakout story to do that."
- The Los Angeles Times
FISH: The Movie
This is a movie about a 17 year old boy sent to an adult prison in Michigan in the late 1970s. Tim, the protagonist is a naïve kid from Dearborn, a working class suburb outside of Detroit. It is a period of great economic distress. The country is reeling from the financial consequences of the Vietnam War, the decline of the steel and automotive industries, and the mounting gas crisis caused by the turmoil in the middle east. Jimmy Carter is President. His attempts to level with the American people and to gain their acceptance that everyone needs to make sacrifices – is met with great disdain. While the country is in a recession, in and around Detroit - it feels more like The Great Depression. The racial divide between blacks and whites is as bad as anywhere in the south.
Late adolescence is a time of struggle for most kids – grappling with issues of identity, sexuality, and separation from family. It is a formative period, where they begin to gain an understanding of the world about them and where and how they fit in it.
Tim was a bright kid from a working class family. His father, a laid-off autoworker, could make out the grades on his report cards, but little else. Comments like, 'always seeking attention' were completely lost on him.
Tim comes from a family with a long history of trouble with the law - his Grandfather, Father, Uncles, and older brother all served time at one point or another. So Tim’s getting into trouble was just a continuation of a long tradition. But Tim was also different – in a way he couldn’t express at home.
In the 1970s, there were no gay representatives in the media. Annita Bryant, the former beauty pageant queen and spokesperson for the orange juice industry started a campaign called, “Save Our Children”. She declared war on homosexuals in the public schools. Tim secretly wished there were some in his school, but the only place he knew they existed was prison. As a young boy, he spent many hours in visiting rooms listening to the stories about what went on inside. The occasional mention of queers captivated his attention. Intuitively, Tim knew, he could never let on to his family.
When Tim robbed a photomat with a toy gun, which started out as a dumb prank, there was perhaps some small part of himself that was hoping he’d get caught. Later, when he was in prison, a fellow inmate tells him, ‘gays are the only people in the world that have to find their own tribe.’
Tim got a lot more than he bargained for once he arrived in prison. Perhaps he came seeking love and sex, a sense of identity, freedom from an abusive family, but what he found and experienced while in there - changed the trajectory of his entire life.
It’s usually a severe physical, psychological or emotional trauma that causes one to develop an acute sensory awareness of the world about them. Tim suffered all three on his first day in general population. His ability to carefully observe, take note and process this complex world is what enabled him to survive – or at least save some small piece of himself that he could salvage later.
Fish is a coming of age story, set in a world with inverted values, distorted notions and abuses of power on multiple levels. Fish tells the story of how a kid navigates this landscape, searches for identity and is ultimately saved by love and the tiniest morsel of kindness. It's a story of liberation and enlightenment in the most unlikely place.