Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

A hand holds a colorful birthday card
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi

In the outside world, you wake up on your birthday expecting expressions of appreciation from your loved ones throughout the day. In prison, nobody looks forward to the bellows of a corrections officer that greet you instead. 

My 19th orbit around the sun was celebrated with the cacophony of hydraulic doors opening and closing, the chorus of arguing prisoners, and a crushing, debilitating sense of dread. You come to accept “special” days and holidays as mere checkpoints, to measure how long you’ve been here. Birthdays are just another day. 

I went through the motions of another miserable day as med-pass came and went, breakfast was served on the same mundane red trays, the dayroom filled with the same expressionless faces. 

One of the more seasoned guys, a man in his mid-40s who served a vital role in our block community, handed me a folded piece of paper. This was not merely lined paper, but a pencil-decorated, 80-cent-per-sheet piece of printer paper that almost looked like it could have been on a Hallmark display case. 

“Happy Birthday, P,” the card read, with a signature and personalized line from almost every member on the block. Some took the space to drop a witty one-liner. Others offered words of advice. Some wrote other kinds of heartfelt assurances. 

A gentleman named Woody wrote a particularly memorable inscription: “Your body has to be here, but your mind don’t.” 

I understood what he meant instantly and felt the furthest I ever have from my actual environment. I wasn’t confined to a cellblock in a prison. I wasn’t surrounded by outcasts, misfits or criminals. I wasn’t in a place beyond the reach of God. And I wasn’t defined by my booking number, case or set of horizontal stripes. 

I was in the presence of genuine, caring, loving, meaningful individuals who understood what incarceration truly meant. They understood what a gesture like this would mean. They understood what it was like to be me. 

After dinner the guys sang “Happy Birthday” to me, forgoing any embarrassment and putting gangster pretenses aside to make me feel at home. It was a miraculously unsynchronized chorus filled with some of the most tone-deaf voices I have ever heard — and it was one of the greatest presents I’ve ever received in 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.

P is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania. He uses a pseudonym.