Prison Industrial Complex Wants Boston Back

Prison Industrial Complex Wants Boston Back
Boston Woodward’s contribution to our understanding of what goes on behind the walls of California’s prisons is unique. Many authors have written about the prison system as scholars or as former prisoners, but Woodard courageously wrote about the prison experience while serving time. He chose that most difficult of human tasks—speaking truth to power. Photo by Peter Maiden

(Editor’s note: Boston Woodard wrote a series of articles for this paper from 2005 to 2018 when he was serving time for a crime he committed more than 40 years ago. The articles about life on the other side of prison walls were insightful. Telling the truth cost him dearly, as he was thrown into solitary confinement, which is a form of torture. The series of articles were compiled into a book, Inside the Broken California Prison System. He is probably the bravest writer this paper has ever had. Now, in his own words, he tells our readers about his current situation.)

I’m writing this piece from my new apartment in Santa Clara County. I am on a court-ordered “house arrest,” wearing a GPS ankle monitor. According to the Santa Clara County district attorney, I am a “flight risk.”

Several months ago, late on a Sunday evening in December, I was in my former home when police surrounded that home and arrested me. That night I was booked into county jail. According to the arrest report, I allegedly committed robbery. The legal case is pending, so forgive me, but my lawyer insists I write no further details at this time.

I can tell you that I’m allowed to go to medical appointments and other official appointments—to the DMV, the Social Security office, my attorney’s office. Each week, I’m permitted three hours of “leisure time” as it is called. I use those hours to go buy groceries, wash my clothes at the laundromat and attend church with a friend. There’s no time to do anything else.

That December night, I was just sitting down to watch a basketball game when suddenly the house was surrounded by police cars. I instantly was overwhelmed by a feeling I hadn’t felt for more than 40 years. My mind raced. Was I going to be arrested? What should I do? The only thing I could think to do was to call a friend and explain what was going on. If I was going to be taken away, I wanted someone to know.

The person who came to mind was my friend Amy Friedman, an author and editor who lives in Los Angeles, a good friend for the past decade and someone who understands “the system.”  I told Amy what was going on, and then I insisted she tell me her telephone number—over and over again so I could memorize it after I was booked. Amy repeated the number more than a half dozen times to me before it finally etched itself into my brain. The entire time my heart was pounding.

The police had the house surrounded. Over a loudspeaker, they ordered me to come out of the house with my hands in the air. I said goodbye to Amy, and I walked outside, hands in the air.

After having served a decades-long prison term, I was released, and for six years I’d lived in San Jose. I’d made a life for myself. It wasn’t a perfect life, but there were many perfect moments.

My landlord, an 80-year-old who immigrated from the Philippines more than 40 years ago with his young family, became my friend. His wife lived in an assisted living care home, and his grown children lived hundreds of miles away. And so, over time, I began to help him around the property in ways that I could. I drove him to doctor’s appointments, to and from several surgeries, to the grocery store. One morning at 5 a.m. I was in my room when Jerry called me and told me he’d been in a four-car accident. I drove to the scene and found Jerry shaken, his car totaled. I was glad I could be there for him.

Other experiences were perfect—the weekend I went to Los Angeles to attend a book launch for the nonprofit that supports teens who have been impacted in any way by the prison system, POPS the Club. My friend Amy and her husband Dennis became my friends because of POPS—I wrote a story for the San Quentin News when they launched the nonprofit, and over the years they had published my work in some of their annually published anthologies. It was a joy to hear the poetry the POPS kids wrote and performed onstage at The Actor’s Gang, and I had the privilege of meeting Robert Barton, a California parole commissioner and another fan of POPS.

My visit to Fresno in early December 2022 was another high point. It was a fundraiser for the Community Alliance where I was reunited with friends I had met at previous events in Fresno. I always meet new people there; it’s always a great experience for me.

I also worked many jobs after my release. I cleaned floors and restrooms in restaurants and had an opportunity to cook in those same places. I delivered mail and flowers. I worked in offices through a temp agency. But among my favorite jobs was the work I did as a production associate with Tesla in Fremont—I made good friends on the floor, and although the work was physically tiring, it felt good.

And then one day I got a notice in the mail that I was fired. A 40-year-old felony record caught up with me, and without any warning, and even after a months’ long background check, suddenly I lost my job. I was 69 years old, and for months I struggled to keep up with car payments so I could drive all over the Bay Area looking for work.

That night in December as the sirens sounded outside the house, all the memories washed over me. I know what it is to be arrested, and so I knew that everything I had was going to be taken away. The biggest loss was my phone—that night I lost all the phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses of everyone I knew, including those of friendships I’ve had for years with people such as Mike Rhodes, Community Alliance founder and executive director; attorneys David Newdorf and Jesse Berkowitz; former KGO Radio talk show host Peter B. Collins; author/journalist Peter Y. Sussman; Wendy Sievert, my friend since I was a teen; Mark Brophy; and numerous others met in Fresno when attending Community Alliance–sponsored events.

So Amy’s phone number that I memorized that night was my lifeline.

As the sound of the police calling “put up your hands and come out slowly” got louder, I slowly opened the door, stuck out one arm and said loudly, “Don’t shoot, I’m coming out.” I made sure not to carry my cell phone out the door; I knew I could be shot if the police thought I had a weapon in my hand.

Police told me to do a 360, then walk backward, slowly, toward the voice that was talking to me. When I reached the sidewalk, someone took my right arm down behind my back. Then they left. Handcuffs were applied, and I was placed in the backseat of a police car where I sat while my car, my room and all the places in the house I had inhabited were searched.

I worried about Jerry. I knew this would be terrible for him. I knew I’d lost a friend.

After nearly three hours, the police drove me to Santa Clara County Jail where I was told I was being charged with robbery. They placed me in a freezing cold, dirty, foul-smelling holding cell where I remained from midnight until 5 a.m.

Then I was taken to a 90-man dorm, a drafty, cold room with 45 metal bunk beds. Inside, men were talking to themselves, many revealing the bad effects of drug withdrawal, others suffering from apparent mental illness. I searched the room for someone who could communicate with me, someone who would fill me in on how this particular facility operated—the rules, the regulations, the drill.

I was able to call Amy that first day in jail, and friend that she is, right away she began the process of helping me to contact other friends. Mike Rhodes was first, and within a day or two, I was able to talk to him again, then David, CNN producer Antoine Sanfuentes and soon after other friends. Sometime over the next few weeks, I met Jesse Berkowitz from the Public Defender’s Office—a young attorney who has astonished me with his skill and his kindness. I’ve never known an attorney who works as hard as Jesse has since the start of his assignment to my case.

From the beginning, Jesse’s plan was to ensure that he did everything he could in my best interests. He proposed to me that it was going to be important for a judge to know my whole story, and he put in a request for a full social work write-up. But that was going to take months and months, and one day Amy proposed an idea to him. She told Jesse that she and other friends were writers, and people who know me well. She asked him what he thought about the idea of my friends, and I, writing my story to help Jesse tell that story to the court. Jesse told her if we all did that, the minute he had the story in hand, he’d take the case to court.

He did warn my friends that my bail was likely to be set high because of my long felony record. He thought it likely it might be $100,000, and it was his idea that my friends consider creating a GoFundMe fundraiser. That is where so many of you who are reading this piece come in. That’s what has led me back to this page.

Because here’s the truth: No matter my story, without you, without the kindness and generosity of so many people, I would not be in my new home right now, writing this article, writing other articles and books, waiting for the opportunity to appear before a judge in late August, represented by Jesse.

I owe my dear friends, and I owe all of you, more than you can imagine. As Jesse told Amy, most of his clients don’t have people in their lives who help them out in the way my friends have. Too many of the men I met in County Jail are there without support, without kindness in their lives, without resources.

I am grateful, and I’ve written this as a small way of saying thank you to so many of you who taught me again that there are people out in the world who are kind and generous, that despite the obstacles ahead of me and obstacles I have faced in my past, I am the luckiest person in San Jose because of friends like you. And I promise, when I can tell you more, I will.

For now, from the center of my heart, thank you all so very much.


  • Boston Woodard

    Boston Woodard is a freelance journalist who spent 38 years in prison. He has been a contributing writer for the Community Alliance since 2005. Boston is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System.

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