Kathy Boudin, the mother of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a formerly incarcerated advocate of prison reform and an alumna of the radical 1960s militant group The Weather Underground, died Sunday after a multi-year battle with cancer. She was 78 years old.
Chesa Boudin has often cited the story of her incarceration, along with that of his father and his mother’s life partner, David Gilbert, as a key influence on his view of the criminal justice system as a progressive prosecutor.
After prison, Kathy Boudin went on to earn a Ph.D., becoming the co-director and co-founder of Columbia University’s Center for Justice. She reunited with Gilbert when he was released on parole last November after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted him clemency.
“My mom fought cancer for seven years in her unshakably optimistic and courageous way,” Chesa Boudin said in a statement provided to Columbia University and obtained by The Standard. “She made it long enough to meet her grandson, and welcome my father home from prison after 40 years. She always ended phone calls with a laugh, a habit acquired during the 22 years of her incarceration, when she wanted to leave every person she spoke with, especially me, with joy and hope. She lived redemption, constantly finding ways to give back to those around her.”
Kathy Boudin and Gilbert were incarcerated for murder and robbery after they took part in a botched heist of a Brink’s armored truck in 1981 in New York that ultimately left two police officers and a security guard dead. The pair participated in the heist as an unarmed driver and passenger, but both were charged and convicted under New York’s felony murder law. Chesa Boudin, who is facing a June recall election, was 14 months old at the time of the killings. Kathy Boudin served 22 years in prison and was released on parole in 2003.
During a parole hearing that year, Kathy Boudin expressed remorse for her role in the deadly incident.
”There are people, good and well-intentioned people, who think that I would take some consolation from the fact that I didn’t personally kill anybody, but I don’t feel that way,” she said. ”I feel I am responsible, because I felt the robbery was a right thing to do and because I was involved in the escape, and I feel it makes me responsible for everything that happened from it.”
While in prison, Kathy Boudin completed a master’s degree in adult education and advocated for the reunification of imprisoned women with their children. She also worked on HIV/AIDS advocacy, taught literacy programs and fought for the return of college programming to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where she was incarcerated.
After leaving prison, Kathy Boudin worked at St. Luke’s HIV/AIDs Center on programming for women. Her work at Columbia focused on reforming the criminal justice system as well as identifying the causes and consequences of mass incarceration.
Born in 1943, Kathy Boudin was the daughter of civil right attorney Leonard Boudin and poet Jean Boudin. Activist Angela Davis counted her amongst her “oldest friends.”
“We’ve known each other since high school, and we’ve done work against the prison industrial complex for the last 20-some years since Kathy herself was released from prison,” Davis said in a statement.
“She was a mother and fearless leader in the global movement for justice reform, social equality and re-enfranchisement,” Jarrell E. Daniels, a staff member at Columbia’s Center for Justice and formerly incarcerated, said in a statement. “For so many of us, Kathy was a legend that defied odds and broke through the boundaries. She will never be forgotten.”
Kathy Boudin is survived by Gilbert, her sons Zayd and Malik Dohrn, Chesa Boudin, grandson Aiden Block Boudin, daughter-in-law Valerie Block and brother Michael Boudin.
Christina Campodonico can be reached at [email protected]