Kathy Boudin’s parole from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility after twenty-two years is welcome and overdue. Welcome not because of her lingering celebrity status as a former Weather Underground fugitive but because parole is entirely appropriate for any inmate who has used her incarceration for the education of herself and other prisoners, who has fulfilled the terms of her sentence and who presents no threat of recidivism. Overdue, because the parole process had been stalled amid the high emotions still surrounding the 1981 Nyack Brink’s robbery in which she was a passenger in the getaway vehicle–a crime that resulted in the murder of police officers Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown, and of Brink’s guard Peter Paige.
To some, Boudin is a symbol of the worst of the 1960s. But the way New York Governor George Pataki exploited the continuing grief of surviving family members to bury the reasonable policy of parole under unreasonable vengeance represented the worst of 1990s crime politics. The two commissioners who finally voted for Boudin’s release, Daizzee Bouey and Vernon Manley, showed courage–and a sane, competent grasp of why parole exists.
Many questions are raised by the most recent chapter in Boudin’s life, among them: If, as it is said, one of the tests of a civilization is the way it treats its criminals, should we not see Boudin’s story as a clear demonstration that rehabilitation ought to be a principal goal of incarceration? At the same time, isn’t it wrong for Boudin’s case to eclipse those of other prisoners who have earned the right to parole but are left languishing in overcrowded prisons because they lack the means or high profile to bring their cases to public attention? (In some states, 80 percent of all applications are denied.) Moreover, how can we nourish the rage at official deceit and injustice that motivated the best of sixties activism and simultaneously banish forever the ends-justify-the-means ethic that Boudin, among others, now understands to be morally unacceptable?
A few weeks before the parole board made its decision, Chesa Boudin, Kathy’s Rhodes-scholar son, stopped by the Nation office to talk not only about his mother’s case but about the invisible victims of the current system: the children of prisoners. His eloquent testimony dramatized the hidden human consequences of our leaders’ preference for tough-on-crime posturing over the difficult business of dealing fairly, in the interests of justice and society, with what is now the highest per-capita prison population in the world.
Without sentimentalizing or minimizing the seriousness of Boudin’s crime, we ought to see in this moment an opportunity to recognize her life in prison as a model for others to emulate–including her work in adult education and also her advocacy on behalf of prisoners with AIDS. The purpose of parole, too rarely fulfilled, is to make such recognition possible.