Building hope from outside in
After serving time himself, Ray Hill reaches out to area inmates through the airwaves
By ALLAN TURNER
March 25, 2010, 10:19PM
Ray Hill was the stand-in groom, and for the wedding he draped a sport coat over his radio station T-shirt. The real husband-to-be couldn't make the ceremony. He was in Huntsville, serving 10 years for dealing drugs. Compounding the bride's wedding-night jitters was the worry that her ex-husband wouldn't approve and might make trouble.
As Prison Show volunteers gathered around a tiny wedding cake in the staff room of KPFT (90.1 FM), Justice of the Peace Dale Gorczynski, seated in an adjoining studio, intoned the familiar wedding words.
Nearly 10,000 people, many of them inmates, listened as Hill, a long-time Houston gay and prison provocateur, gave a proxy promise to love and honor, then sealed it with a peck on the bride's cheek. It was his 12th radio marriage in a broadcast career spanning decades.
Hill, 69, will celebrate a milestone of his own today when his weekly show marks its 30th anniversary. The two-hour call-in show, the longest-running such radio program in the nation, is credited with bringing prisoners a mix of criminal justice news, words of cheer from friends and family and Hill's own avuncular analysis and advice.
"I have had a very rich political life," Hill said recently, "but The Prison Show is the most political thing I've ever done."
'Do something useful'
The program, staffed by volunteers who, like Hill, have spent time in prison, never fails to tug at the heartstrings.
"I'm just trying to bring them some level of hope," Hill said of his inmate listeners. "I try to get them to do something useful — education, recovery. A significant percentage are there because of drugs and alcohol. That's something they can work on while they're in prison."
While the wedding show was a bit atypical, it included all the components that make the broadcast one of the nonprofit Pacifica station's top draws. Featured were an interview with former inmate Esteban Garcia, author of a series of self-help legal manuals for prisoners; a Hill soliloquy on self-worth; and about an hour of calls from inmates' friends and families.
Those one-way conversations dealt with the stuff of daily life: college plans, cancer treatments, financial difficulties and outings to the rodeo. The calls, some of which came from as far away as England, were interspersed with comments from relatives who had come to the studio.
Capping them was a teen's performance of a stanza from the songYou Are My Sunshine, dedicated to her jailed father. It is a Prison Show staple, performed countless times over more than a dozen years.
Even more poignant, Hill said, are the calls from former inmates desperate to talk to their prison buddies.
"Some are almost tearful talking to those they left behind," Hill said. "They have fewer friends out here. No one accepts and understands them like another inmate. When you listen to those voices who have been there and gotten out, then you'll have a pretty good idea what institutions will do to people."
Pacifica Foundation's chief, Arlene Englehardt, said Hill's mix of commentary and comments has broad appeal.
"You can't help but be pulled in by it," she said.
For Helga Dill, president of the prison reform group Texas Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, Hill's program offers inmates a valuable audio letter from the free world.
"He is able to get information out there," she said, "be it laws that were passed or news about prisons, good or bad."
'I never got out'
Although families can visit prisoners and, in some instances, talk with them by telephone, Hill's one-way communication from the outside helps keep inmate families together.
"What I hope I'm doing," said Hill, "is helping them deal with the guilt and the shame that makes them worse, helping them to become better people. … Convicts think they are monsters just like everyone else does. If they're listening to me, they're going to hear me telling them they have good and bad points and that I hope they will exploit the good points to become a useful members of society."
Hill, who served four years in prison for burglary in the 1970s, said he has an inmate's rapport with other inmates.
"I think I'm a pretty good role model," he said. "I'm not afraid of 'The Man.' I get in The Man's face. I'm not afraid to get arrested."
In addition to hosting his radio program, Hill said he frequently visits Texas prisons to speak to inmates.
"I never got out of prison," Hill said. "I've been out for over 35 years, but I'm still there."
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