A birthday cake with candles lit for a 60th birthday celebration
Photo by Caterina Berger on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered if people in prison recognize and celebrate birthdays? Would such a celebration even be allowed? 

Well, I would like to share with you one such occasion. On September 3, 2022, I turned 60 years old. I’ve been inside for the past 23 years, so there have been many birthdays, but this one is different for me.

This one is different for me because I am scared. 

When I came to prison, I was 37. I entered an unfamiliar environment and it took some time to adjust to; I’m still not fully used to it. One of the first things I did was find where religious services were held. I started attending services, and in a short time I became an associate editor and contributing writer for the church newsletter. Some of the first questions asked at my interview were, “When is your birthday? Did you know there is a committee just for keeping track of each member’s birthday?”

A couple members of the birthday committee would usually procure birthday cards and go around asking if you would like to sign the card for brother so-and-so. Sometimes they would do so quietly during a Bible study or during service. Members would sign the card, often whether they knew the person or not.

Then on or around your birthday, if the day was not a day we were having church, you would be presented with this card of many greetings and well wishes, along with a couple of juice and ice-cream tickets inside. The birthday committee had a $5 spending limit. One of the team members would volunteer to get two ice-cream tickets at $2 a piece and two juice tickets at 50 cents a piece from the commissary and put them in the card. 

I still have many of the cards I received over the years with greetings and wishes from men I met inside. Some have left prison, but they had an impact on my life.

While there are so many different types of people in and outside of prison, we all have a birthday. We all have a day we were born — and a day we die.

This year’s birthday is challenging because it makes me consider that the time I have left is less than the time that came before it. What do you do when there is so much you want to give, but your lifespan has gotten so much shorter than you want it to be?

Can you remember looking forward to reaching a certain age? “You have your whole life ahead of you,” people would say. I remember being 12 years old, knowing that the next year I’d be a teenager. After that, I couldn’t wait to be 18, then 21.

But what do you say to old people? 

Just like we don’t say, “I want to go to prison when I grow up,” we also don’t say, “I can’t wait to be 60.”

My life choices brought me to prison to serve time, but I still have hope. I’ve accepted where I am and the reason for it. I continue living my life in honor of those I’ve hurt. 

Right now, I’m focusing on more than my time in prison. This is a time in my life to reflect. I look at that man in the mirror and ask, “What have I done with the life I have? What have I gotten out of life? And what can I do with the rest of my life?” 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Jeffrey Shockley

Jeffrey Shockley is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.