Kathy Boudin’s Remarkable Journey

Kathy Boudin’s Remarkable Journey

Until I met Kathy, I had never witnessed the kind of self-study she engaged in to understand who she was before the crime that defined her life—and how she could begin to make amends.


I met Kathy Boudin in the visiting room at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in the 1990s. Her lawyer, the legendary defense attorney Len Weinglass, was working on her clemency petition and wanted me to write a letter assuring the Clemency Board that if it granted her petition, I would offer employment at the organization I led (the Osborne Association, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming prisons for the people who live in them, work in them, and visit them). I said I could offer Kathy a job only if I spoke with her directly to understand the work she wanted to do. Although Kathy’s parents and mine were friends—and we had many friends in common, and our kids went to the same summer camp—I had never met her.

Having been involved in prison work since Attica, I had already had many opportunities to see that “there but for the grace of God…,” but when I got to know Kathy, that sense became visceral—real. It was clear to me that women raised like we were—who still remembered all the words to “Banks of Marble,” who thought we would advance the movements for peace, civil rights, and justice—could have gone in any direction. That I ended up in law school and Kathy went underground was dumb luck. In her case, luck ran out.

But it was more than luck—or the loss of it—that sent Kathy on a journey to really understand how she came to be where she was. And this internal journey not only did not detract from the amazing work she was doing inside—on programs around AIDS, parenting, college, while mentoring and supporting the women she lived with and their children—it super-charged it.

I was not Kathy’s only visitor, far from it. It seemed like everyone she knew, from the time she was in elementary school, stayed close. But she also sought to meet with people who were survivors of her crime and other crimes of violence, including a police officer who had been shot in the line of duty. Although I had met dozens of incarcerated men and women who had genuine regret and remorse for the harm they had caused, and who had transformed their lives, I had never witnessed or been part of this kind of self-study.

I felt part of it because Kathy and I shared something central to our lives: The father of my two children was serving a long prison term for a murder in which he was not the shooter, as Kathy’s son was the child of two parents serving a long term for a murder in which they were not the shooters. All of us had made decisions in one way or another that our children were paying for. And all three incarcerated parents had to come to accept that, whether or not they directly caused the death of another human being, they were responsible for the destruction of many families, including their own.

I wrote the letter offering Kathy employment. And I kept visiting. Kathy did not get clemency, and did not make parole when she was first eligible after 20 years. But still, I kept visiting. And then two years later, in 2003, she did make parole, thanks to her deeply expressed acceptance of responsibility for her actions, and to two brave parole commissioners—a decision that cost them their jobs. (When one of these dear souls, Vernon Manley, died last year, Kathy stood alone outside in the rain at his funeral, ever grateful for his acknowledgement of her remorse.)

Even before Kathy came home, our children, Chesa and Emani, chose to step into the roles that our life choices had laid out for them, representing children of incarcerated parents and demanding that their rights be respected and their needs met. At one conference, they were challenged by an audience member—a former mayor who, our kids were aware, had bombed his own city, destroying two entire blocks and killing 11 people, to obliterate the Black liberation group MOVE—who demanded: “How can you, one of you a Rhodes scholar and one of you a college student and the child of a lawyer, dare to speak for children with parents in prison who haven’t had all of your support? Aren’t you exceptions?” They explained that they were there because of that support, and that all children deserve that support, without exception.

This was also how Kathy understood her work creating programs and advocating for women in prison—and then for people aging in prison, especially lifers and long-termers. She knew that it was the support of so many people that enabled her to survive prison (and to survive her cancer diagnosis for seven amazing, productive years).

Kathy’s first days home in 2003 are hard to describe. I still smile at the memory of trying to get her to cross the street when the light turned green because she did not share my confidence that the bus coming up the street would actually stop at the red light. When I started to take us across 86th Street in the middle of the block, she nearly tackled me. She was not going to return to prison for jaywalking! And, of course, there was our effort at a garden in my backyard, which involved going to the store to pick up dirt and seeds, with me thoughtlessly driving across the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Lowes in Rockland County, forgetting that she did not have permission to go there. I still regard it as one of the miracles of my life that I was able to stop her from jumping out of the car when I told her I could not make a U-turn on the bridge.

Eventually, five years into her parole, we crossed a much bigger bridge—a trip to South Africa to learn how people were healing from apartheid and to better understand how the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could contribute to restorative practices in our own country. Because Kathy’s network of support was and is so extraordinary, we were able to have breakfast with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the holiest man I have ever met, who wrote notes of encouragement to David and Jomo, our children’s fathers, who were both still in prison: “God believes in you and loves you as if you were the only person in the world.”

Kathy’s friendship felt the same way: Although I was only one member of her large circle of friends, I always felt her love for me as if I were the only person in the world. Our most important time together was working with an incredible group of people, including a restorative justice practitioner, survivors and victims’ advocates, people who had caused harm and been harmed, to create the Longtermers Responsibility Project. Nearly 15 years later, we now offer this program to people serving time for homicide, facilitating an opportunity to participate in a deep process similar to what Kathy created for herself: to understand who they were before the crime that has defined their lives, what happened, and how they can begin to make amends for the harm they unleashed. The “Coming to Terms” curriculum that Kathy willed into being in 2009 will survive us and will provide access to the kind of deep remorse and sense of responsibility that gives life to those who cause harm and those who are harmed—which is, in some way, all of us.

As I think about Kathy, and the joy she felt meeting her grandson, I imagine Emani and Chesa sitting on a dock in the Bay, with their own grandchildren decades from now, laughing about their crazy parents and the world we tried to make better in our own ways, and the world they are making better now, in their own ways.

The author would like to thank her and Kathy’s children, Chesa Boudin and Emani Davis, for their support in writing this. Chesa is San Francisco’s district attorney; Emani is founder and director of the Omowale Project. She would also like to thank Kathy’s partner, David Gilbert.

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