All the recipients are behind bars.
“They make me cry,” Hill says of the messages. “Half my callers are regulars. Mrs. White, who would always listen and dial the last digit right when someone else hung up, called for her son every week until she died from breast cancer. Her voice got weaker and weaker and weaker.” Similar shows may come and go, prison specialists say, but no other program in the country so consistently reveals the character of inmate families' lives.
“Most prisoners are poor, and most of their families are very poor, so they occupy a part of our society that is, for the most part, invisible,” says Steve Fama, attorney at the Prison Law Office, a California non-profit that provides legal services to inmates. With so few chances to communicate, callers on Hill's show hurl privacy away and simply tell their news — about health crises, money struggles, and sadness underlaid with anger.
The station's signal takes their voices into about 20 prisons. In some units, reception falters, depending on the cell location and the quantity of steel within the walls. But 60 miles north of Houston, the show sounds loud and clear in Huntsville, which houses the prison system's headquarters, its oldest unit — and its bustling death chamber.
In the early days, Hill says, the two-hour show was meant strictly for inmates. Hill passed the time quizzing officials and imparting news about the prison system.
Then one night, a mother called him from the highway, where she had wrecked her car en route to see her son in prison. “Tell him I'll come back when I have the money,” she begged Hill. Instead, he hooked the receiver to the microphone. The call-in hour for inmate families began.
Family contact like this, Fama says, brings inmates more than comfort. At least one study shows that it's a stabilizing influence, lowering the rate of recidivism and prison violence.
For families who live far from the prisons, a few minutes on Hill's show can be crucial. In Texas, which has one of America's strictest visitation policies, most inmates are not permitted use of telephones. Visits last four hours, without contact, regardless of distance traveled; mail is routinely delayed.
Still, the voices on the air can make for melancholy listening.
“I was feeling really sad this week because somehow I wasn't able to get through last time,” a teary woman calls in for her husband. “Sometimes . . . it just gets to me that I can't see you or hear you.”
Just as often, though, a regular caller simply offers a sense of home: describing the food served for a Sunday dinner, or the chorus of fast-growing children.
And on almost every show, a caller will address one message to her father — and another to her brother. Or her husband. Or her son. In prison culture, Hill explains, there are entire families that supply the system.
Though he specializes in giving members of that world a voice, Hill himself qualifies as an Olympic talker. Raised in a blue-collar Houston suburb, he spent his teens as a football star and roaming preacher. He abruptly ceased the latter endeavor when he lost his faith. At 17, he came out of the closet.
As an adult, Hill became a full-time bon vivant — a lifestyle he maintained by robbing warehouses. He served four years in a California prison, which exposed him to the violence and bureaucracy of inmate life. When he was freed in 1974, he came home to Houston and turned his attention to pioneering gay activism, inmates' rights, and opposition to the death penalty.
With his criminal career long past, Hill nurtures a curious persona: He's an ex-con activist on fine terms with the legal and civil liberties establishment. According to Larry Todd, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman, Hill's candor has a lot to do with it.
On recidivism, for example, Hill says bluntly, “What people don't understand is that some of those men you see slumped on the sidewalk, panhandling, many of them were very important persons in prison. Out here, they're invisible.”
Prison, however wretched, offers those inmates an identity again, Hill says. It's a sense of belonging he never fully shook himself.
“Among prisoners,” he says, “I am still a big man on campus.”
Hill similarly commands respect from Todd.
“I listen to the show,” says Todd. “I think employees listen. Like it or not, we employees are in this prison system with the inmates ... He certainly is not an inciter, nor does he provide a one-sided viewpoint. He knows his stuff.”
As the show winds down, Hill is in his listening mode. Hands clasped on the table, he greets callers one by one. They're still on hold, four at a time; after a stretch of lonely wives, though, this last batch seems more upbeat.
“Hi, Gary!” a Wisconsin woman twangs. “This is Mom, and gee whiz, how are you? How about that next Friday deal? Forty years — woowoowoo! You're just a kid yet.”
But when a voice is crossing prison bars, Hill knows, even the merriest greetings are weighted down with the unsaid. Like the call from Dobie, released from prison two days earlier.
“I just want to give a shout down to all the guys in the Darrington Unit,” he calls in confidently. “Everything is cool. It's good out here, man!”
“Congratulations, Dobie,” Hill says gently. “Just dig in. It'll get a little less scary when you've been out a while.”
THE PRISON SHOW: Friday 9-11pm KPFT Houston Pacifica Radio 90.1FM. The show reaches Texas prisons in Walker, Brazoria, Galveston, Ft. Bend, Liberty, Montgomery, and Travis counties.