By Boston Woodard
In the early 1990s, I was named editor of The Communicator, one of California’s last newspapers written and published by inmates. I made an effort to change the paper’s content from (as some called it) dull to something more informative and helpful to the prison’s general population.
Providing updated information on prisoners’ rights and sharing information about pertinent laws and policies that affected prisoners were at the top of my list of possible topics for The Communicator. I also wanted to include more articles on prison arts/music and other important rehabilitation programs, which were copious back in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In my first issue as editor of The Communicator, I put out a call to the prisoners in the general population for writers and poets, sportswriters, jailhouse lawyers, and artists and cartoonists. Their contributions would make our newspaper a more significant, meaningful publication.
Within days, I received dozens of responses via institutional mail: notes, letters and artwork (mostly political cartoons), along with great suggestions for future stories. Among the many responses I received were two small yellow envelopes that simply said “Boston” on their face. A label on one of the envelopes read: “Charles H. Keating, Jr., [prison I.D.] H-32037” and a prison cell number, “2385X.” He was the same Charles Keating who in 1992 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his part in the U.S. savings-and-loan scandal.
It was alleged that Keating took advantage of “loosened” restrictions on banking investments with depositors’ money. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board, commencing in 1985, feared that the savings-and-loan industry’s high-risk investment practices were causing huge losses to the government’s insurance funds. The government became nervous. It was further alleged that Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan siphoned money to his parent company, American Continental Corp., using a variety of schemes. In April 1992, Superior Court Judge Lance Ito gave Keating a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
Who knows how many of these accusations about Keating were true, or how much of the savings-and-loan scandal was brought on by federal government regulators when they shut down Keating for their investigation? Keating despised the regulators, seeing them as “useless relics from an outmoded financial past.”
Talking about multi-billion dollar homebuilding enterprises or massive savings-and-loan conglomerates is far beyond my purview of topics to discuss while behind prison walls. To be honest, I don’t know squat about any of it. What I can talk about, though, is Keating, the man I knew behind prison walls, a warrior who stayed tough during his incarceration.
Keating also remained hopeful and true to his faith and family, something he spoke about often. I’m a firm believer that a man shows his true colors when he thinks no one is watching him. Keating never hesitated to laud his family or to espouse his faith as a devout Catholic. This type of openness by a prisoner is largely accepted by most convicts because it is the sign of someone who seriously “sticks to his guns,” not trying to BS everyone in the process. I believe Keating’s apparent commitment to family and faith made many prisoners ponder about and evaluate their own situations and what was important in their lives to help sustain them while they’re behind bars. Keating had that kind of positive effect on many prisoners.
One of the envelopes Keating sent to me at The Communicator office contained a suggestion to intersperse small vignettes throughout each issue of the newspaper. He included a short piece he wrote about Ray Kroc, who turned McDonald’s into America’s top fast-food restaurant. This and other short literary sketches he submitted gave hope to our readers, especially those aging prisoners who were inspired to learn that Kroc eventually earned billions of dollars from a business he launched after spending years as an itinerant milkshake machine salesperson.
In another piece, “A Lot Depends on Where You Put the Callouses,” Keating described how his friend Carl (no last name given) had worked long hours all his life to help his family. “Carl would come home dead tired and sit with his head between his hands, his elbows on the table, and he would read,” wrote Keating. “Carl kept working, and he kept reading. To make a long success story short, this typical self-educated American kid, who started working for pennies, became one of the 400 richest men in the United States.”
As Keating told me, “The only difference between Carl and prisoners like us is that he never quit reading. When I first met Carl, he had big callouses like steel plates on his elbows, which he’d been leaning on for years while he read.” And Keating would end each piece on a positive note: “You can be successful, just like Carl. Forget the negatives, forget the handicaps—and read!”
Keating’s story about Carl hit home with me. I was a terrible reader when I first entered California’s prison system. It was the older prisoners who encouraged me to read everything and anything I could get my hands on—and I did.
I received so many positive responses about Keating’s articles in The Communicator that I asked him if he would take a job with the newspaper, suggesting to him that it might help his time go a little quicker. “I would like to do some good with my time,” he answered in a letter he sent to me in September 1993 about a possible job assignment with The Communicator. Any small stipend he received would be donated back to the newspaper, he insisted. His only request was to be released from duty one Sunday a month for family visits.
I submitted Keating’s letter to my supervisor, who forwarded it to the warden for review and approval. Keating’s request was denied without explanation. A higher-up staff member later told me the warden was “hesitant” about assigning Keating to a job located inside the prison’s main administration building. “The warden’s afraid Keating’s going to take over his job,” some prisoners joked. “If he did, Keating would probably do a much better job of running the prison!”
Although he was never officially assigned to work for The Communicator, Keating continued to submit stories and to share other suggestions that contributed greatly to our small prison newspaper. He was always upbeat and friendly, never forgetting where he came from and always remembering where he was.
Keating and I discussed many topics, often inspired by contemporary news stories that were either interesting or similar to our own thoughts, beliefs and experiences. One such subject was the mainstream media, especially corrupt, self-serving journalists and government sycophants who, quite frankly, write lies. As Keating tells it, “All of their acts are negative. They are not creative. They do not add value to anything.” One quote Keating shared with me from the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire reminded me of my own situation fighting a corrupt California prison system: “It’s dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” Man, ain’t that the truth!
I looked forward to our conversations because I would always sponge up something new about politics, education, career opportunities, family, friends, trust, faith—you name it, Keating would talk about it. He was a plethora of positive information to many of the men he met while in prison. “Give yourself credit. Read, read, read, read,” he’d say. “Then read some more!”
“When you get out, you must be confident,” he told me. “Too many of us think ill of ourselves. No reason to do that.” That was typical Keating, giving good advice to other prisoners while he was incarcerated. Many of our talks occurred while we walked laps around the prison yard. He would also walk alone at times, fingering his rosary beads, no doubt thinking about his family. Hardly the “high-living, white-collar sociopath” that Time magazine had portrayed him in the 1980s. And as for Keating being disliked by fellow inmates? Another lie by the media.
I did not know Keating out in the free world, only in prison for a short period of time. The man I met was as tough as nails and as smart as a whip, always ready to lend a hand or offer advice if asked. He was full of hope and enthusiasm.
Keating once sent me a quote from Shakespeare’s King Henry V:
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars…
This story shall the good man teach his son;
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
“Boston,” he said. “I hope when it’s all over, my son and I can say the same thing for ourselves. That we were good warriors. Real men. Not wimps!”
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist serving his sentence in Susanville State Prison. Boston has written for the San Quentin News and the Soledad Star and edited The Communicator.