HOUSTON — The three young girls can hardly sit still, buoyed by excitement and that extra piece of chocolate cake. It's their father's birthday and they're throwing him a surprise party.
But this is no ordinary birthday with hugs and hastily wrapped presents. Their dad is behind bars, serving a life sentence for aggravated kidnapping and capital murder.
So, in what has become routine for them, the girls sit inside a dilapidated radio studio, sending out their greetings via the airwaves. "Happy Birthday, Daddy," they shriek into the microphone, and then launch into song.
It's all part of another week on "The Prison Show," a radio program designed for the bulging prison population in Texas. The state's 145,000 inmates have limited phone and visitation privileges, so "The Prison Show" keeps a number of them 27,000 in 20 Houston, Beaumont, and Hunts- ville prisons up to date on life beyond bars, while giving outside listeners a glimpse into their daily struggles and the lives of those who love them.
Lonely wives call in, dreaming about the day when they'll be reunited with their sweethearts. Dads call, counseling their children to hang in there and not slip up so close to parole. And parolees call, just to "send a shout out" to friends left behind.
Each week, for two hours on Friday night, the switchboard at the local Pacifica station in Houston lights up in anticipation. Callers will stay on hold as long as it takes, just to share the latest bits of news from home: a busted water pipe, a sick relative, a bad day at work.
"There have been people who have been calling for years, and we get to hear all their dirty laundry: their illnesses, their financial difficulties, things they wouldn't even tell their neighbors," says the show's host, Ray Hill. "But that's part of the magic of the thing. We become like family."
Mr. Hill believes strongly in showing the human side of an often dehumanized segment of society. He began the radio program 21 years ago after spending four years in prison for burglary. While similar programs spring up from time to time across the country, none has been as long-standing or as well received.
Part of it may be Hill's absolute love of his job. He's quick to laugh, a full-bodied laugh that encourages others to join in and just as quick to cry. He has a closely manicured white beard and a rolling belly, and if it weren't for the opal pinky ring, he'd look a lot like old St. Nick.
"The Prison Show" begins with prison updates, guests' comments, and answers to inmates' letters. The second hour is the families' opportunity to call in.
Tonight, like every Friday night, Sandy and Holly are calling from Dallas to offer a bit of encouragement to their friends on death row.
"Lizard, Max says you're a Cowboys fan. I'm sorry. I'm sure it's just a phase you're going through, possibly temporary insanity," says Sandy.
"Maybe you could use it in your appeal," she jests.
Often, the weather and location of cells affect inmates' reception. But even the prison system recognizes the broadcast's worth. "It's a good show; a lot of inmates listen to it," says Larry Todd, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Austin.
He says the show is important because it helps dispel rumors that crop up inside prison walls. "Accurate and timely information is so important, and that is what Ray Hill provides."
As for the inmates worrying that the most intimate parts of their lives are aired for everyone to hear, says Todd, "there is so little privacy or modesty in a prison unit, you take [communication] how you can get it and when you can get it."
Many of the show's callers are regulars Alma from Abilene, Donna from Plymouth, Wis., Pat from Glendale, Ariz.
Calling in is just as therapeutic for the families as it is for their loved ones locked up but it's often hard to make that initial call. Having a family member in prison can be humiliating at first, says Patsy Halanski, a board member with the Texas Inmates Families Association in Austin. "Most people are embarrassed to say they have a loved one in prison. They think they will be judged for that. But when they listen to this show, they realize that they are not alone, that other people can relate to what they're going through. It's very educational."
However, not all the calls are so upbeat. Some are just plain heart wrenching.
Sandy Nelson, for instance, came to the studio to send a message to her husband, Stephen, on the Darrington Unit, a prison south of Houston. He's doing 99 years for aggravated robbery, and the two got married on "The Prison Show" last spring.
"My sweet husband, I love you so very, very much, and I'm so glad to hear that you are feeling a little better," she reads from a letter jotted down earlier. "It always worries me like crazy when I know you are not feeling up to par. It's just another one of those terrible disadvantages of being apart and not being there for the person you love when they need you. But please go to sleep tonight feeling very loved and very wanted because you have a wife out here that loves you beyond words."
The listening audience is moved again and after about 25 calls (50 more don't get through), the show comes to a close for another week. Hill quickly gets serious in his summary.
"You know we laugh and hoot and holler, and then those gals call in from Dallas talking to them boys on death row with a lot of spirit in their voice," he says. "It takes a great deal of grace to do that.... The people that we love are locked up in the hellhole that is Texas prison.... But, by golly, we can sing and write poetry and laugh and love one another."