A Texas-Sized Birthday

by Mike Powers

That time of year has come and gone once more. No, not THAT time of year, silly. I’m not talking about Christmas or even the New Year. I’m talking about my BIRTHDAY! Whoopee!

Birthdays are pretty dicey propositions for most of us even at the best of times, but in prison, it is definitely a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’re another year older. On the other, you’re that much closer to the end of your sentence.

I’m a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and the world of fantasy that he created in his books. (Interestingly, I never became a fan of Fantasy as a genre, however.) When Bilbo Baggins celebrates his birthday at the beginning of The Hobbit, he does so by giving away presents to all the little hobbits invited to his party. This way, the book explains, hobbits get to enjoy presents all the year around instead of on just one day a year. Personally, I think this is a fantastic tradition that all of us humans should adopt.

That said, charity begins at home, right? So, for many years, I’ve thrown a birthday party for myself and given little gifts to all my invited friends, and sometimes to my uninvited ones as well. There’s not much to exchange here in the pen, so it will probably come as no surprise to you that the gifts usually amount to foodstuffs, and my favorite foodstuff presents are almost always sweets.

This year, I made a peppermint patty cake with lots of chocolate and mint. My recipe is a carefully guarded secret that some inmates would trade their parole for, so I won’t reveal it here lest word leak out, but just imagine a York’s Peppermint Patty turned into a cake and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how scrumptious it is. I kept three pieces for myself and gave the other five away as this year’s presents. They were much appreciated, and I received many good wishes on the birthday and raves about the cake. That alone makes for a pretty cool birthday.

Enter stage left, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. I’m no lifer, but I’ve known some, and I’ve inquired of them. Unless there is some alternate policy for inmates on death row, the TDCJ could care less whether or not an inmate celebrates his birthday or feels special in any way.

For every single one of my fifteen birthdays behind bars, I’ve made my way down to the chow hall to eat the fare they provide. Don’t get me wrong, I’m plenty grateful for it, even though I don’t consider it “free”. After all, I’ve given the TDCJ plenty of “work time” to pay my fair share of any food they’ve ever given me. But it IS my birthday, and shouldn’t one receive a little something special on one’s birthday? Of COURSE, one should. My philosophy must radically differ from the Department’s, however, because despite my inquiring at every meal on every birthday for the last fifteen years, I have never received so much as an extra slice of bread, much less an extra helping of food or a dessert or anything else. Sad, very sad.

The incident that prompted this particular tale of woe is worth relating, I think. Yesterday was one of the rare-as-hen’s-teeth FRIED chicken days. It’s the third since I’ve been on this unit, but only the tenth or so time it’s been offered as the main on any unit I’ve ever been on. (You can infer here that the Stevenson Unit’s kitchen sucks.) As you might remember, I am on the diet tray and have been since the first of September, part of my plan to achieve and sustain a weight of 220 pounds. (Fourteen pounds to go, all the way down from 286!) The diet tray doesn’t get fried chicken. The diet tray gets baked chicken, and it gets it three times a month. So, yesterday being my birthday, I, asked the kitchen manager if he would mind if I get fried chicken instead of baked. I even showed him right there on my TDCJ I.D. that it was, indeed, my birthday. Mustering all of his mental prowess to summon up a reasonable answer, he said, “No.” “But it’s my BIRTHDAY! Please?” “Get outta my line.” Apparently, he hasn’t read The Hobbit, but he would be much better served with the Bible or Chicken Soup for the Prison Guard’s Soul. What kind of a... ahem, ogre, does one have to be to deny such a trivial request to someone on their one special day a year?

As a matter of fact, why is this kindness even being left in the hands of someone who so obviously doesn’t have the capacity to make such a drastic command decision? Since a birthday is something every single inmate will have every single year, wouldn’t it behoove the TDCJ to make some effort at helping each one celebrates the day? It should be part of the institution, not anathema to it. Might I suggest a little birthday cupcake or a coupon for a free pint of Blue Bell ice-cream from the commissary? That would really do the trick. That would show some compassion. That would show some humanity.

Instead, the TDCJ wants me to be grateful that I’m not chained to a wall all night or getting my thumbs screwed. They think I should be euphoric because I didn’t get the iron maiden last night and that they aren’t coming at me with a red-hot poker. Well, gee. Thanks. Progress is progress, after all.

As much as I’ve always loved this state, this beautiful, bold Texas, when stuff like this happens in here, it makes me cringe that I was once so blind to it. I mean, really, the “Drive Friendly” State can’t even scratch up a piece of fried chicken for a birthday boy? Oh, yeah. “Don’t Mess With Texas”.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez