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Ex-Prisoner Shares Story at The Schoolhouse

CROTON FALLS, N.Y. – It was standing-room-only at Croton Falls’ Schoolhouse Theater Saturday evening when filmmaker T. J. Parsell presented three short films based on his experiences as a juvenile offender in Michigan’s maximum security Jackson Prison. The program was entitled, “Fish: a Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison.”

At the age of 17, Parsell used a toy gun to rob a Photomat kiosk of $53. He was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to a long prison term. Five years later, he said, he “was paroled on a Monday and left for New York on Friday.” Once there, he was heartened by the vitality “and the anonymity” of the city. He found work, made some friends. Eventually he “got sober, got clean and got lots of therapy.”

Now in his early 50s, author of a best-selling autobiography with a business career under his belt, Parsell devotes much of his time to prison reform. He also enrolled in NYU’s film studies program with hopes of pursuing a new career. Saturday’s screening represented three of his student projects. 

His first two films were dramatizations of his arrival at the prison and his years of internment. To make the second short, Parsell returned to Michigan with his crew and filmed at Jackson State Prison. “For eight days, that prison was mine,” Parsell said. “When I was in prison I was powerless. When I went back to make the film, it was so empowering to realize that this place did not destroy me.”

While in prison, Parsell said he was raped and received maltreatment. “What I did was wrong and I deserved to go to prison, but I didn’t deserve what I got when I got in. I was a 17-year-old kid. I weighed 148 pounds – a lot of other kids are in college at that age.” 

The third film was a documentary revisiting his childhood and youth through home movies and interviews with relatives. Parsell noted that almost all of his family had served prison time, so it was not exceptional when he was sentenced. 

Between film presentations the audience participated in a dialogue with the filmmaker. Several people were parents of young prison inmates. Another talked about an incarcerated friend, yet another spoke of her experiences as a corrections officer. Comments were, “the system needs to be humanized,” and “there is institutional apathy,” and “sexual harassment is not tolerated in the workplace, why is it tolerated in prisons?” Many congratulated Parsell for being “a great inspiration.”

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