We mourn the loss of and celebrate the life of life-long activist Kathy Boudin, a cherished partner and V-Day sister for many years.
An organizer for racial justice and an anti-war activist, Kathy turned a prison sentence into a breathtaking life of service. She became a leading voice for women in prison, developing programs in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility’s Children’s Center, helping to bring college education back into the prison when public funding for it ended, and doing groundbreaking work on HIV/AIDS that still reverberates today. At Bedford Hills, Kathy built community. She started a yearly tradition of giving thanks for families and loved ones of those living at the prison with a Tree of Life ceremony where photos of loved ones were displayed – the tradition continues to this day.
Kathy was also a remarkable writer. For 8 years she participated in an ongoing writing group facilitated by V-Day founder V (formerly Eve Ensler) with 14 other women who through their writing deeply grappled with their histories, crimes, and dreams. The group’s writing was showcased in the 2003 documentary What I Want My Words to Do to You. This was the beginning of years of collaboration between Kathy and the V-Day movement. In 2019, Kathy was instrumental in shaping V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Program, an initiative which later birthed the Write to Heal project, which centers the writing of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. Roslyn Smith, who was at Bedford Hills with Kathy, now runs the program.
Kathy broke paths for so many women, in and out of prison. With her life, she set an example of how women have the power and a capacity to reinvent themselves despite the hurt they may have caused by their actions.
Kathy was the first woman to earn a Master’s degree while serving a term in prison in New York state. Once paroled she earned a doctorate from Columbia University’s Teachers College and went on to co-found and co-direct the Columbia University Center for Justice where she created the annual Beyond Bars conference, bringing together activists and academics from around the world to investigate and strategize about justice reform. As a teacher and leading advocate, she devoted her life to helping women caught up in the prison system and touched countless lives. Kathy was also a founder of RAPP, the Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP Campaign, a group led by formerly incarcerated people and family members of people in prison that advocates for Parole Justice and the release of aging people in prison and those serving long sentences.
What all of us at V-Day will remember most about Kathy is her undaunting spirit and her radiant light, which was never diminished despite the numerous challenges she faced during her 22 years in prison – most notably being separated from her beloved son Chesa.
Today we are full of gratitude for our beloved sister Kathy. We are thinking of how she gave her life fully in service and of how she gave until the very end.
We leave you with her words, written while in the Bedford Hills writing group and that appeared in What I Want My Words To Do To You (2003):
When I walk out of the prison gate, I will gently touch the air that surrounds me like a shawl. I am with my child in freedom, reunion with my family and friends who have lived these decades with me. Together with them, I step into a new life, filled with uncertainties, the uncharted waters of freedom that we all live for and do not know really what it means. This will be a voyage of celebration, of survival, of gifts of friendship and love. Of a weight lifted. Of a new day. Yet, I have another journey to make. I must cross that river of sorrow into the past, where the flames burn with spirits. I will approach and look for your faces to find your eyes and look directly at you, to go back again to that day, to kneel at the place where I lay on the ground, to retrace my steps, to tell you that your ghosts haunt me. To wail with the flames, oh if I could only replay that day, I would not have been there, I would not have gone, I would not have my hands in any way touching the tragedy of that day. My journey cannot be taken without facing your eyes, and those of your loved ones, who went on with their lives without you. If only there were a place where the living and the dead could meet to tell their tales, to weep, I would reach for you, not so that you could forgive me, but so that you could know that I have no pride for what I have done, only the wisdom and regret that came too late.
– Kathy Boudin
To honor Kathy, please consider donating to RAPP, the Center for Justice and/or the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Girls and Women: