On Nov. 6, the Vassar Prison Initiative (VPI), a student organization committed to raising awareness about issues related to the prison-industrial complex, hosted an event featuring educator and counselor Dr. Kathy Boudin. The speaker, who works as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, spoke about her experiences in prison and offered her opinions on how to create a more effective justice system.
Boudin, raised in Greenwich Village, N.Y., had become heavily involved in the Weather Underground, a far-left, anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and 1970s. She was 38 years old when she was arrested, along with several other Weathermen, in connection to the 1981 Brink’s robbery, when Weathermen and members of the Black Liberation Army stole $1.6 million from a Brink’s armored vehicle at a mall in Nanuet, N.Y., killing two police officers in the process.
Boudin was incarcerated in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, the only maximum security prison in N.Y., for 22 years of a 20-years-to-life sentence for robbery and felony murder. During her time in prison, the HIV/AIDS scare in the United States had become particularly frightening for women in prison, many of whom either had it and were scared to spread it, or were unsure because of the lack of HIV/AIDS testing allowed in correctional facilities.
Boudin and some of her fellow inmates organized a support group for those affected by the disease, trying to create a safe space for the prison’s women to discuss the matter and rally around each other without fear of judgment, an idea that soon spread to many other prisons.
“In that room, with black, white, Latino, gay, heterosexual, college-educated, GED, only basic education, we were a microcosm of the people of the prison,” said Boudin. “It took what was a secret and what was not spoken into something that you could then begin to talk about, and then you could have a community of people who could grieve, who could express their fears and who could be brought into a community in which they could take care of each other.”
Boudin and those inmates with whom she forged this alliance began to push for educational allowances for the prisoners as a step not only to better themselves then, but as a step toward taking control of their futures. Each One Teach One class showed prisoners how to teach others, and Boudin recounted that serving as mentors to children gave hope to many of the women who were unable to be with their own children on the outside.
“My son was 14 months old when I was arrested, and the guilt that I felt, the grief that I felt, I shared with the other women there. We all felt that,” remarked Boudin. “But to have a way to transcend that by believing that you could make a difference in your child’s life was a very, very important thing.”
Boudin also championed the need for higher educational opportunities for the women of the prison. Building upon the successes of other appeals, she was able to bring college professors to teach at Bedford Hills. Boudin explained, “One of the things that was amazing about that experience was [that] we watched people go home from prison and, based on the experience that they had in the prison, be able to build lives at home.”
This program parallels that of two offered by Vassar College in years past. For 30 years, the Africana Studies Program participated in an joint academic endeavor with Green Haven Prison, a maximum security facility for male inmates. The program also inspired a similar program at the Otisville medium security prison for men nine years ago.
According to a statement by the Africana Studies Program, “Over the years, the groups have discussed a variety of topics, including: domestic violence, fatherhood, family, communication skills, victim awareness, current events awareness, housing and jobs in the outside community, and community reentry” (“The Green Haven Prison Program will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a conference and reunion on April 4, 2009,” 3.27.09).
It continued, “One of the main goals of the program is to prepare incarcerated men to reenter the outside community.”
Since being released in 2003, Boudin has advocated for greater public awareness of prison life and the unjust treatment of prisoners. She argued that a wrongful paradigm of punishment guides the American criminal justice system, which she argues should rehabilitating rather than punitive. “It may seem counterintuitive, but the way that people change is by having some control over their lives,” Boudin posited.
The 71-year-old radical-turned-social worker has, however, garnered significant opposition, particularly with regards to Columbia University’s decision to hire her in 2008. Critics have labeled Boudin a murderer, a terrorist and unworthy of her professorship at an Ivy League university. A New York Daily News article entitled “Convicted killer Kathy Boudin accorded celebrity treatment at NYU Law School” wrote that “Some crimes are too heinous to be allowed to slip from memory” (4.12.13). Fox News’ Jesse Watters, who went to the university to gauge students’ reactions to the institution’s decision to hire her, criticized the 70 percent who reacted in support of the appointment, one of whom commented on the decision. The student stated, “I think it’s a positive thing for someone to come and go through a situation like she’s been through and make something positive out of it” (Patheos, “Nine Columbia Students Interviewed About Kathy Boudin I,” 4.18.13).
Yet, Boudin has shown no signs of succumbing to her media gadflies’ calls for her resignation, continuing to teach and develop programs for the support of HIV patients and their families at the Center for Comprehensive Care, HIV AIDS Center, at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.