As It Happens

San Francisco's DA releases inmates during COVID-19 — but he can't free his own father

San Francisco's district attorney has released almost half the inmates in his city during the COVID-19 crisis — but he's powerless to help his own incarcerated father.

Chesa Boudin's father David Gilmert is in an N.Y. prison for his role in a deadly armed robbery in 1981

San Francisco District Attorney candidate Chesa Boudin is facilitating the early release of non-violent offenders in his city. (Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle/The Associated Press)


San Francisco's district attorney has released almost half the inmates in his city during the COVID-19 crisis — but he's powerless to help his own incarcerated father.

Chesa Boudin was elected last year on a mandate to reform the prison system and decrease incarceration rates.

His own parents — radical left-wing activists — were imprisoned when he was a toddler for their role in a botched armed robbery that killed two police officers and a security guard in 1981.

"My earliest memories are going through metal detectors and steel gates just to visit my parents, just to be able to give them a hug," Chesa Boudin told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"So my experience has shown me that the system is broken and we need to fix it. We need to start investing in prevention, in healing in re-entry. And that's exactly what we're doing in San Francisco."

'He presents no threat to public safety' 

Boudin's parents, David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, were members of the Weather Underground, a militant left-wing organization founded at the University of Michigan with the goal of ending American imperialism.

In 1981, they acted as getaway drivers in a botched armed robbery of a Brink's security truck. Two police officers and a security guard were killed in an shootout with the couple's accomplices. 

Boudin's mother served 22 years, and his 75-year-old father is still behind bars, serving a 75-to-life sentence at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County, N.Y.

Boudin and his father David Gilbert. Boudin is now the district attorney for San Fransisco. Gilbert is in prison his role in an armed robbery in which three people were killed. (Submitted by Chesa Boudin)

Boudin says his father didn't wield a weapon during the robbery, and has never had any disciplinary violations during his 38 years in prison.

The inmate in the cell next to him was recently moved out of the prison after being diagnosed with COVID-19, Boudin said.

"Every time my father goes to the telephone to call me or my mother, he's taking his life in his hands," Boudin said.

"He presents no public safety risk, and yet he's still incarcerated in conditions and circumstances that very directly threaten his life. It's a terrible use of resources. It's a terrible risk to his life. And not only that, but to all of the people who work and live in this prison."

Prisons around the world have become hotspots of COVID-19 infections due to their cramped conditions and poor access to sanitary products.

This is especially true in the United States, which has the world's largest inmate population.

The UN Human Rights Office issued a statement this week expressing concern for American inmates, noting that "pre-existing structural problems, such as chronic overcrowding and unhygienic conditions, coupled with the lack of proper access to health care have enabled the rapid spread of COVID-19 in many facilities."

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were about 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. by the end of 2017. 

The latest data released by the Federal Bureau of Prisons showed that 2,000 out of 2,700 inmates tested positive for COVID-19. 

n this Nov. 21, 1981 file photo, Weather Underground member Katherine Boudin is led from Rockland County Courthouse in New City, New York, by sheriff's officers. (The Associated Press)

"I knew firsthand and through years of study and professional experience that sending people to jail and prison at the unprecedented and unparalleled rates that we do in the United States ... actually makes us less safe. It actually increases crime. It fails to rehabilitate and it fails to invest in healing the harm that crime victims suffer," Boudin said.

"But what COVID-19 has showed us is that mass incarceration also presents a very serious threat to the public."

That's why he's been working to dramatically reduce his city's inmate population, focusing on non-violent offenders convicted of low-level crimes.

San Francisco has reduced the number of people in its county jails by 40 per cent since March 16, when the city's shelter-in-place orders were enacted. 

"We found a woman in jail with a high-risk pregnancy who had been convicted of a misdemeanor, a low-level nonviolent offence. She had no criminal record," he said.

"I'm proud to say we got her out of jail and into a prenatal care centre where she can live and receive treatment until her high-risk pregnancy results in the birth of a precious new life."

Critics call him soft on crime

Boudin's methods are not without their critics.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association strongly opposed his election, teaming up with other law enforcement agencies to spend $650,000 in polling and attack ads against him, calling him "the number one choice of criminals and gang members."

One conservative pundit in the National Review dubbed him a "a left-wing radical" who is seizing on the pandemic to enact his soft-on-crime policies. 

"There are always critics on Twitter and other places. But the reality is, if we look at data and if we look at what public health requires in the midst of this pandemic, there's broad consensus for reducing the jail populations and reducing the prison populations," Boudin said.

"This is, at the end of the day, about public safety and about saving lives."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. 

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