Kathy Boudin obituary

Show caption Kathy Boudin with sheriff’s officers after her arrest in 1981. Photograph: Handschuh/AP US justice system Kathy Boudin obituary Radical activist jailed for her part in a robbery who became an advocate for women in prison and their children Helena Kennedy Fri 6 May 2022 17.45 BST Share on Facebook

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In the course of more than two decades’ imprisonment in New York, Kathy Boudin, who has died aged 78 from cancer, underwent a profound transformation, from political revolutionary involved in a robbery that caused three deaths to penal reformer acting as an advocate for women in prison, and in particular for reunification with their children. She came to realise that she needed to recover her own sense of responsibility and self, free from any sense of political justification. This process became a path to seeking restorative justice – bringing people harmed by crime into contact with those responsible for it, to find a way forward – and eventually, clemency, parole and release from prison in 2003.

The decisions that she came to regret came out of a passion for justice – against racism in the US, by demonstrating in favour of civil rights, and against imperialism abroad, as represented by the Vietnam war. In March 1970 she and other members of the Weather Underground, a breakaway group from Students for a Democratic Society, were in a house in West 11th Street, Greenwich Village, when three of the group were killed by the explosion of bombs that were being constructed, believed to be intended for an anti-war protest at a military base. Kathy and another SDS militant, Cathlyn Wilkerson, who were in another part of the house, survived and fled the scene.

In the following years Kathy maintained a low profile while a fugitive from the FBI and continuing as an activist; the Vietnam war ended in 1975. She appeared on the front pages again in October 1981 when she was involved in the robbery of a Brink’s truck in Nyack, New York state, by acting as a decoy in a getaway truck. The motive was political, on behalf of the Black Liberation Army group, and the value Kathy and her partner, David Gilbert, gave to the operation lay in being white when the police would be looking for the black men who committed the robbery. A Brink’s guard was shot dead during the holdup a mile away from their waiting truck. Later, close to that vehicle changeover point, police stopped the truck David was driving and, although Kathy got out of the passenger seat and surrendered, the men in the back jumped out and shot two policemen.

Up to that point I had not known Kathy, but I was a friend of her parents, Jean (nee Roisman), a poet, and Leonard Boudin, a leading liberties lawyer, who had mentored me in my early years as a barrister. In 1982 Leonard asked me to help Kathy with a defence strategy, and two years later she pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and, with regard to the death of the security guard, second-degree murder.

A Chicago police department Daily Bulletin issued in April 1970, showing eight members of the Weathermen faction of the SDS. Photograph: AP

Her plea was accepted and she was sentenced to 21 years to life in prison. David and the others did not recognise the court and were sentenced to 75 years.

Kathy entered the Bedford Hills correctional facility, a maximum security prison for women, with deep regrets and remorse for her participation in Brink’s, and serious questions about the role of violence in political movements. She also had to live with the consequences her political choices had for her son, Chesa, whom she had had with David; at the time of the robbery, he was 14 months old.

Every year for 22 years I visited Kathy and saw how she changed. In prison, she focused on strengthening mother-child relationships across the separation of incarceration, working to bring up Chesa collectively with David, her former Weather colleagues Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, and their two sons. In 1989 I made a documentary with Polly Bide for Thames Television about the innovative parenting scheme at Bedford Hills.

After the Pell grants scheme to give prison inmates a college education was abolished in 1994, Kathy raised funds from private donors for classes to resume three years later. She also promoted a community response to the HIV/Aids epidemic, and edited and co-authored the book Breaking the Walls of Silence: Aids and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison (1998).

After her release in 2003, for which Chesa and many of us had campaigned, Kathy developed a restorative justice programme inside prisons for long-termers, many of whom were sentenced as juveniles; she created policy initiatives to release ageing people from prison and to reform the parole system, and initiated a healthcare programme for people returning from incarceration.

In 2014 she founded, with Cheryl Wilkins and Geraldine Downey, the Center for Justice at Columbia University, New York. Her work focused on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, and the development of strategies to both transform the current criminal justice system and to deal with the day-to-day damage that the system has caused.

Born in Manhattan, Kathy had enjoyed a privileged upbringing. The family’s house in Greenwich Village was the centre of liberal, radical and artistic circles. Her father acted for Paul Robeson and many other celebrated activists, including Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers trial fame. Childhood friends from the Little Red Schoolhouse included the future activist Angela Davis.

Boudin speaking at an event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2019. Photograph: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

From Elisabeth Irwin high school Kathy went to Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, where she majored in Russian studies for her bachelor’s degree (1965); she visited both Moscow and Cuba. Later on, while in prison, she got a master’s degree in adult education and literacy from Norwich University, Vermont, and in 2007 a doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College.

The spirit of the 1960s galvanised Kathy’s passion for justice and set the course for the rest of her life. From her engagement with the early days of the civil rights movement in the Cleveland-based ERAP – Economic Research and Action Project, a multiracial movement of poor people, founded by the social and political activist Tom Hayden and others – to her aligning with the anti-war Weather Underground later in the decade, Kathy threw her lot in with those most oppressed. The Weather Underground name came from the faction’s original name, Weatherman, after a 1965 Bob Dylan lyric: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Kathy was wholehearted in following that wind, for better or for worse.

She was an extraordinary, compassionate human being who became very close to me and my children, joining us for holidays on Cape Cod each year after her release. She turned her grave mistakes into an engine for change and public good.

Last year she was reunited with David, after he was given parole. Chesa became a district attorney in San Francisco, and Kathy’s elder brother Michael was a federal judge. The three survive her, along with a grandson.

• Kathy Boudin, activist and penal reformer, born 19 May 1943; died 1 May 2022