Jailhouse Talk

On Friday nights, prisoners across Texas tune in to hear the voice of a gay ex-con and -- just maybe -- a message from home.

Every Friday evening at nine, when the brick-red heat of an East Texas day starts to fade, Jon Buice lies on the narrow bed in his prison cell and turns on the radio. He stares at the ceiling with his headphones on, waiting for the sounds that will transport him, however briefly, beyond the walls that enclose him. Then he hears the buttermilk voice of Ray Hill, with his signature catcall: "Holler down the pipe chase and rattle them bars, 'cause we're gonna do a Prison Show."

Buice, 28, has been inside Texas prisons for the past 10 years; he's doing a 45-year stretch for murder. For eight of those years he has listened to the Prison Show every week, as do many of his fellow inmates in the Wynne Unit of the sprawling prison complex in Huntsville. The show, hosted by Ray Hill and broadcast from Pacifica's commercial-free kpft station in Houston, reaches listeners all along the Gulf Coast, including 20 percent of the 145,000 inmates currently locked up in Texas. For the first hour, Hill, an ex-con who did time in Huntsville himself during the 1970s, reports on prison issues and interviews a wide variety of guests -- parole board officers, wardens, substance abuse counselors, criminal defense attorneys. Hill is an outspoken activist who has the ear -- and the phone number -- of nearly everyone involved with the Texas prison system, and he doesn't hesitate to use those connections, whether it's to support parole for an individual inmate or to try to topple a corrupt prison official.

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But while inmates like Buice listen to the first hour to hear news they otherwise can't get and to know there's someone sticking up for them on the outside, it's the second hour of the show they wait for. That's when families and friends call in. I love you, the voices say. Thanks for the birthday card. Mom didn't start chemo yet, the hearing went well, we'll see you tomorrow. Some callers just paint a picture of the world outside for people who are parched for scenery -- it's been real dry up here, and the grass is getting that burnt look.

Hill banters with them, by turns offering sympathy for news of illness or death, engaging in small-town Texas talk ("Y'all have that watermelon festival going on this week?"), and goosing the prison system ("Any one of you in B wing who has actually received any kind of rehabilitation in prison, scream loud 'cause the warden's deaf"). Inmates in Texas aren't allowed to receive phone calls, except under rare circumstances, and some don't know how to read or write. In a state so big that some families can't afford to drive to see prisoners often, just listening to the voices of strangers on the Prison Show provides many inmates with their only sense of connection to the world beyond the prison walls. If you get a call yourself, Buice says, it's like hitting the jackpot. "Just for that split second, you're there with them," he says. "You're out in the world."

Through the thin but intimate connection of the airwaves, Hill has created a kind of community on both sides of the razor wire -- for inmates, and for the families outside who are doing time with them. But he does more than talk on the radio; over the years Hill has managed to help rehabilitate individual prisoners. He visits prisoners regularly, speaking in recovery programs (he's been sober for 43 years) and mentoring inmates like Jon Buice. He urges them to avoid gangs, stay clean, and get some education, and he gives recent parolees a helping hand. "When inmates get released, often the first person they'll call is Ray," says Chuck Hurt, an ex-con who works for a parole attorney and books many of Hill's guests on the Prison Show. By gathering information directly from inmates, Hill has also helped expose prison scandals and spark statewide reforms, and the solid, no-nonsense information he offers on the air has earned him the grudging respect of prison officials and politicians across the state. "We have no problem with Ray Hill," says Larry Todd, spokesman for the Texas prison system. "That doesn't mean we agree with him on particular issues, but he gives accurate information and has expertise communicating with inmates -- and that makes the show worthwhile."

Hill is an unlikely role model for hardened convicts. First off, he's openly gay, and as he puts it, "Being a punk in prison isn't low status -- it's negative status." But he's outspoken about his sexual orientation, hoping it will create some tolerance for gay inmates on the inside. "If they don't like me being queer, they can go listen to the straight prison show," he says with a laugh, knowing that there isn't one. He's also tough enough to earn the respect of inmates -- they know that, as a diabetic, he's suffered through having a toe and part of a leg amputated, and he's been through heart surgery, once doing the Prison Show from a hospital bed.

A graying, gristled bear at 61, Hill started the Prison Show 22 years ago, not long after he was released from prison. A former Baptist evangelist turned gay activist, Hill had co-founded KPFT, Houston's community radio station, in 1968 -- robbing warehouses on the weekends for his livelihood. "I specialized in something queens know something about," he says dryly, "antiques, art, jewels, and electronics." Caught in 1969 and sentenced to 20 consecutive eight-year sentences -- that's 160 years -- Hill managed, by some crafty jailhouse lawyering, to get out in just over four. But while he was inside, he listened to KPFT. "The station I helped create fed my head the whole time I was there."

Back on the outside, Hill decided to do a program that would speak to the inmates he left behind. The Prison Show started off as a ho-hum chat hour on prison politics. Then one day, a woman called from the roadside just minutes before airtime. "I could hear the traffic sounds -- whoosh, whoosh -- and this little tiny lady's voice full of anxiety, fear, and frustration," Hill recalls. The woman told him she'd saved for a long time to visit her son in prison, but she'd had an accident on the way, and would he please tell her son, because he listened to the show, that she couldn't make it, but she loved him. Hill put her on the air. "Ma'am," he told her, in his courtly Texas drawl, "he's listening, so why don't you go ahead and tell him yourself." From that day on, the lines were jammed. "We call KPFT 'Keeping Prison Families Together,'" Hill says.

Before each show, Hill and his staff of volunteers gather around a conference table at the low-budget, volunteer-run station. Hill sorts through his mail, which is some measure of the show's popularity: Today he has 35 letters, and some weeks he gets as much as 25 pounds of mail. These days, the staff consists of two homeless ex-cons, a death penalty activist, and two women who married men in prison. Patsy Halanski, a Pentecostal who helps answer the phones, says she was a strict "lock 'em up and throw away the key" type before her son was imprisoned for aggravated robbery. At first, she refused to listen to Hill's show because he's an atheist and gay, but when she realized how much it meant to her son to hear her voice on the air, she eventually came down to the station. "I'd cry when kids would call in, saying, 'Daddy, I'm opening your present,'" she says, "and Ray -- that big old goat -- would wipe my tears."

This evening, the show starts off with Hill interviewing Lon Bennett Glenn, a retired warden and author of The Largest Hotel Chain in Texas. Glenn is a hardened Marlboro Man, the kind you can imagine riding a horse in cotton fields full of inmates, as he did for many years. He looks uneasy next to Hill, who wears a T-shirt and a big opal pinkie ring, but they're cordial. They disagree on a lot of issues: Glenn supports the death penalty, and Hill is so opposed to it that he even showed up to protest the execution of a man who murdered one of his former lovers. Glenn thinks that educating convicts is a waste of taxpayer money, and Hill believes that it's the only hope. Still, they find common ground discussing the severe staffing shortage in Texas prisons -- 3,200 positions for guards remain unfilled across the state, jeopardizing security -- and both agree it's foolish to lock up drug users and other nonviolent offenders, who will just come out of prison much meaner than they went in.

Then it's time to open up the phones. A computer screen shows all seven lines full, with callers who have already been waiting for 40 minutes to get on the air. Over the next hour, Hill turns the airwaves over to some 30 callers. Rebecca Hernandez and her three young daughters elbow into the small studio -- it's quicker for them to come in person than try to call. Her husband, "Tokyo," has been in prison for six years, serving three life sentences for "a drug deal gone bad," and his visiting privileges are limited. Hernandez comes every week. "The Prison Show has kept our relationship going," she says. One by one, her daughters, ages 4 to 10, take the microphone to tell Daddy they love him, and the youngest sings a whole verse of "You Are My Sunshine."

Hill also helps callers work the system, putting them in touch with attorneys, support groups, service agencies, and elected officials -- and, when he needs to, raising seven kinds of hell with officials and the media. When one caller mentions that her home was searched by a sheriff and plainclothes police when her terrified 17-year-old daughter was home alone, Hill perks up. "Honey, why don't I give you my home phone number," he says. "This is the sort of thing I like to make an example of."

The calls from families, as well as letters from inmates and prison employees, are Hill's main source of information about goings-on in the prisons, which spur his activism. These days he's focused on medical problems, particularly the lack of care for prisoners with hepatitis C, an often-fatal liver disease that has reached epidemic proportions in some prisons. In the past, he has exposed inadequate treatment for prisoners with HIV, as well as wide discrepancies in how parole boards vote. "The Prison Show has broken a helluva lot more prison stories than the Houston Chronicle," says Randy Smith, a parole attorney. Smith and others credit Hill with uncovering the VitaPro scandal, in which former prison director James "Andy" Collins pushed through a $33 million contract to sell low-grade soymeal to the prisons in exchange for kickbacks. Inmates wrote to Hill about the scheme, and when newspapers took up the story, Collins resigned, and was indicted and convicted last year.

"Texas' theory about prisons is that if you're an inmate, you're like a mushroom -- they're going to bury you underneath the ground and feed you shit," says Smith. "Consequently, inmates don't know a lot that goes on until the Prison Show tells them."

Hill shrugs off such praise, giving credit to the inmates who keep him informed. "I'm minding my own business," he says, "and prisoners just feed me all kinds of valuable information."

On the inside, the Prison Show is sometimes too much for inmates to take. Most prisoners never get a call from friends or family. "The majority don't want to hear it at first," says Richard "Cowboy" Cain, a 45-year-old former inmate who spent 17 years in prison. "Most of us don't like pain, which is why we're there. When we go to prison we're separated from all the problems of family and financial responsibility, so then you've got this fool on the radio wanting to bring that back to us."

Cowboy, a former member of a white supremacist gang who wears a black hat, has two tattooed tears dripping from the corner of his eye, gang symbols commemorating two attempted "hits" he made on other inmates. He spent most of his time inside, he says, doing drugs and getting tattoos. Then he started listening to the Prison Show and noticed that it altered the dynamics of the gangs inside the prison. "The head of the Muslim gang had the biggest radio, so we'd all gather around," he recalls. "When people were listening, you'd hear a black mama and a wife, and they weren't black anymore -- they were just human." Cowboy began corresponding with Hill, and one day, when he was on the verge of being reassigned to maximum security after violating too many rules in a lower-security prison, he was sent to the warden's office, where he found Hill waiting. "You need to shut up and quit doing what you're doing," Hill told him. They struck up a friendship, and Hill helped steer him through drug and alcohol recovery. Hill bought him his first lunch in the free world, and invited him to work at the Prison Show -- as long as he kept his act together.

"I'm a recovering alcoholic and ex-con -- and so is Ray," says Cowboy. "He's been my mentor and friend, and he's been instrumental in keeping me out." Cowboy looks like he's about to shed some real tears over his tattooed ones. "Hell," he says, "he's like Mom."

"Mother Hill," as he sometimes calls himself, dishes a lot of advice to inmates. "The most important thing I do is to be a role model -- not getting drunk, not stealing shit, not going back to prison, surviving, holding my head up, overcoming all that boot-mark-on-your-neck stuff," he says. A lot of inmates don't take his advice, and end up back inside. Hill hears a lot of false promises and gets burned a lot, but he's also seen some convicts turn their lives around.

One of those is Jon Buice. Sitting behind the mesh screen that separates inmates from visitors at the Wynne Unit at Huntsville, Buice credits Hill with keeping him out of trouble in prison -- even though Hill led the effort to put him behind bars in the first place. Buice was convicted of murder in 1992 for being part of a gang of 10 teenagers who beat a gay banker named Paul Broussard to death. When investigators were slow to respond to the event -- as they had been to other violent crimes against gays -- Hill organized a demonstration of 2,000 gay supporters on the Houston street corner where the murder occurred, putting the story on the front page and the evening news. Prosecutors and victims-rights advocates credit Hill with working for the conviction of all 10 teenagers. Buice, who had a knife, got the longest sentence -- 45 years. "Normally, I'm on the defense side," says Hill, "but this was a violent assault that resulted in a horrible death, and I owe it to the gay community to be concerned about their safety."

But once the "Woodlands 10" were in prison, Hill tried to get in touch with them. "You send people to prison for crimes against gays, they're going into an institution that is far more homophobic, where they'll be rewarded for doing violence against gay people," he says. "In addition to putting them in prison, you have to communicate with them." Hill contacted Buice through another inmate, and Buice found himself striking up a correspondence with the man who he says stirred up the media and put him behind bars. Hill encouraged him to go to school in prison, and Buice now has a college degree. With Hill's support, Buice also wrote an open letter of apology to the gay and lesbian community and attempted mediation with the victim's family. "It's ironic that we're friends," Buice says. "But he's the one who told me there's hope, and that people loved me, including him." Buice is up for parole next year, and Hill hopes he will take over as host of the Prison Show after he's released.

As Hill winds up his show this evening, he takes a moment to say hello to a few inmates he knows personally. He calls out to "Jon," telling him to hang in there. "Now we've just got to figure out a way to get you out of there," he says.

For that moment, listening to his friend, Buice is outside the red-brick walls of the prison. He imagines himself with a good job, and a family, and a place among the ex-cons who volunteer down at the station. Then he slips off his headphones and returns to reality, his 8-by-12-foot cell. But like other inmates who listen to the Prison Show each week, he is now measuring time not just in years, but in the days until next Friday night.