After more than 22 years of visiting hours and prison phone calls, Chesa Boudin ’03 will finally get to know his mother –at least for the next two weeks. Boudin leaves for England to begin his Rhodes Scholarship on Oct. 1; his mother, Kathy Boudin, left the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York yesterday.
“I’m very much looking forward to it,” Chesa Boudin said last week of his mother’s pending release. “It will definitely be a change, but a good one.”
Boudin was just 14 months old when his parents began serving time for their participation in a 1981 robbery that resulted in the deaths of a security guard and two policemen. Kathy Boudin, 60, a former member of the 1960s radical group Weather Underground, was granted parole this August, but Boudin’s father will not be eligible for parole until 2056.
Kathy Boudin’s release Wednesday drew heavy fire from relatives, friends and colleagues of the slain men, as well as from police organizations.
“I’m physically ill right now,” Brent Newbury, president of the Rockland County Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, told the Associated Press. “I can’t believe I just saw Kathy Boudin walk out of prison.”
After a troubled childhood, Chesa Boudin said he eventually studied hard and got into Yale, where he became an outspoken critic of the criminal justice system and a spokesman for children with imprisoned parents. In his senior year at Yale, he won the prestigious Marshall and Rhodes scholarships. Only two days after Boudin learned he had won the Rhodes, The New York Times printed a front-page article chronicling his story: the son of prison inmates who managed to overcome the odds.
Boudin, who has written several controversial op-ed pieces and organized letter petitions on his mother’s behalf, called her parole the result of a “team effort” by her lawyers, friends and family.
Nearly 300 members of the Yale community can also be found on the list of his mother’s supporters. After his graduation in May, Boudin recruited the signatures of Yale administrators, professors, students and parents on a letter to the parole board considering her case.
“We support a criminal justice system that recognizes and rewards inmates like Kathy, who have undergone profound personal growth, and shown genuine remorse,” the June 15 letter said.
Boudin said his mother was granted parole for her exemplary behavior during her 22 years in prison. He said she never fired a gun in the robbery and has devoted her time behind bars to literacy and AIDS education.
“I think her getting parole was the way the criminal justice system should work,” Boudin said. “Why wouldn’t someone like her be released? She’s 60 years old; she’s not a threat to society.”
Boudin’s mother was recruited for the robbery by members of the Black Liberation Army and other radicals. The robbers stole $1.6 million from a Brink’s armored car at a suburban mall and killed security guard Peter Paige. The two policemen, Sgt. Edward O’Grady and Officer Waverly Brown, were gunned down when the truck, with Boudin in the passenger seat, was stopped at a roadblock and gang members burst from the back of the vehicle with automatic weapons firing.
Boudin was caught as she fled. She had been a fugitive for the previous decade after she was seen running from an explosion at a New York City townhouse where bombs allegedly were being made.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, who signed the letter pressing for her release, said in an e-mail that he was deeply moved by the story of her rehabilitation.
“This case raises in a very deep way the question of rehabilitation, the question whether punishment and suffering can work a change that makes further punishment just vindictive,” Brodhead said. “Maybe I’m just a man who has taught ‘The Scarlet Letter’ too often, but I thought this was the case this time.”
Many of those who knew Boudin, and also those who had never met him, received the letter in an e-mail and signed their names. Alberto Boquin ’06, who knew Boudin from a class the two took together, received Boudin’s letter in an e-mail and passed it on to his mother in Honduras, who was so touched that she sent the letter out to all her friends and family. As a result the signatures of Boquin’s grandmother, aunt and uncle can be found on the letter.
“She went crazy with it, she told everyone about it,” Boquin said. “It caught fire, and lots of random San Pedro Sula people ended up signing their names.”
The impressive show of names on the letter may, in part, be due to Boudin’s activism on the Yale campus. During his time as an undergraduate, he founded the Student Legal Action Movement, or SLAM, which works to reform this country’s criminal justice system.
“There is this call for blood; people demand punishment,” Boudin said. “But that really takes needed energy and resources away from addressing the real needs of victims of a crime.”
While he acknowledged that Yale makes it easy to start new student groups — such as the Yale Coalition for Peace, which he also helped found — Boudin said it is harder to maintain activist groups, in part due to the difficulty of obtaining adequate funding. Boudin said he also found that students who considered themselves “activists” were less willing to join more established campus organizations such as the Yale Political Union.
Boudin admitted he was not always as well-informed about the criminal justice system as he is now. Despite his personal experience with prisons, he said he entered Yale with limited knowledge about the system at large.
But that changed for Boudin when he enrolled in an American Studies seminar called “Punishment in American History,” which he said allowed him to explore his own experience in a broader social and historical context. He wrote his term paper, “From Jail to Yale,” about children of incarcerated parents. In the process, Boudin reconnected with a childhood friend whose parents were also in prison. As Boudin struggled with epilepsy and dyslexia throughout his childhood, this friend had served as a role model. But when Boudin located him again over a decade later, he had joined his parents in prison.
Boudin then decided to try to understand why they had ended up in such different places.
“I’m white and he’s black, and that’s a huge difference in terms of the American justice system,” he said.
Statements like these have made Boudin a lightning rod for criticism. In an Aug. 29 editorial, printed just after the court granted his mother parole, The Wall Street Journal, accused Boudin of “narcissism dressed up as compassion” and attacked statements Boudin made in which he compared himself to the children of the robbery victims.
Although Boudin said he is used to the criticism, he adamantly defends his statements.
“Everybody suffers, everybody has horrible experiences,” he said. “I would never compare my suffering to anybody else’s — There’s a striking commonality between [myself and the children of the robbery victims] — through no fault of our own, we lost our parents.”
Boudin said that although his mother’s parole has been greeted with protest from the victim’s families, he would very much like to meet and talk with the victims’ children.
“This tragedy is a tie that binds our lives together,” Boudin said.