David Gilbert, father of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, has been imprisoned in New York for nearly 40 years. The coronavirus has put at risk America’s huge imprisoned population.
David Gilbert is 75. Keeping him behind bars serves no purpose and could result in his succumbing to Covid-19.
The New Yorker 3.26.2020.
Chesa Boudin, the District Attorney of San Francisco, last spoke to his father on the phone a few days ago, and, like everyone these days, they talked about covid-19. His father, David Gilbert, is seventy-five, but the risks he faces if infected by the virus are far more serious than those confronting many other septuagenarians. Gilbert is confined at Shawangunk Correctional Facility, some seventy miles north of New York City.
Should he get sick, he will have to rely on the prison’s staff to help him. “Using the phones or even going to the mess hall is a real risk for him at this point,” Boudin said. “They use very old-school phones that are shared by a large number of inmates, and they don’t work very well. And, so, to have a conversation, you have to get your mouth right up into the mouthpiece that is being used by many, many hundreds of other people.”
Gilbert is among the oldest people in the New York State prison system. In 1981, he and Chesa’s mother, Kathy Boudin, who were both members of the Weather Underground, were involved in the robbery of a Brink’s armored truck, in Rockland County, that resulted in the deaths of one of the company’s guards and two police officers. Kathy, who was sentenced to twenty years to life, was released on parole in 2003; Gilbert is serving a sentence of seventy-five years to life. About his most recent call with his father, Boudin said, “We said goodbye at the end, as we do at the end of every phone call, but this one felt different. It felt heavier and more ominous because I know—and he knows—that there’s a very high likelihood that his prison will go on lockdown, or that he’ll be unable to get back to the phones. And because we know that the reason for that is a disease that very seriously threatens his life.”
Officials in many states are taking similar actions, including Boudin, who asked his staff at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office to examine the cases of people held in the city’s jails, in order to figure out whom they could release.
“The health-department officials that run our jail medical team are very anxious,” Boudin said. “I mean, I get messages from them repeatedly throughout the day about the jail count, about particular people that they are concerned with that have vulnerabilities, people who are elderly like my father is, who they want me to find ways to get out if it is within my power to do so.”
Steven Zeidman, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law, runs a clinic that assists incarcerated people with applications for clemency. In early March, Zeidman made a list of ten of his clients and sent it to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, urging officials to release the men. “With covid-19 entering the state’s prisons, it’s imperative that the governor’s clemency bureau begins taking a hard look at people, particularly those who are deemed to be most at risk. Here’s a list of people, all with exemplary records inside, who are over sixty and have profound evidence of transformation and rehabilitation,” he recalled writing. Among them was Gilbert, who, in the late nineteen-eighties, helped create an organization that used peer counselling to educate incarcerated men about the aids epidemic.
This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to release a few hundred people from New York City’s jails. New Jersey’s Attorney General has agreed to free about a thousand people from the state’s county jails.
As covid-19 has been spreading throughout the country, Boudin has been outspoken in urging criminal-justice leaders to reduce their jail and prison populations. But he also acknowledges the difficulty of doing so. “The decision about whether or not to release a particular individual from custody is often a challenging one,” Boudin told me. “As a law-enforcement official, as a politician, you are always going to have in the back of your mind the fear that someone you release will end up committing another crime, potentially a serious crime, during a period when they otherwise would have been incarcerated. And that fear has driven decision-making for decades in the criminal-justice arena. That fear of a Willie Horton moment has driven decision-making, legislation, executive action around criminal justice.”
“Crises like this force us all,” he said, “to look in the mirror and make difficult decisions, ask difficult questions about what our priorities are.”
I asked Boudin if he had a message for Cuomo, and he said, “I think Governor Cuomo has been playing a phenomenal leadership role in the face of this crisis.” He went on, “I saw a tweet that he posted today where he said something to the effect of, ‘We’re not willing to sacrifice one to two per cent of New Yorkers. This is not who we are. We will fight to save every life we can. I’m not giving up.’ And it’s that kind of inspiration, that kind of leadership, that is leading people to put his name forward as a Presidential candidate at this late date.
I would just urge him not to forget about people who are incarcerated. We are not willing to sacrifice people who are incarcerated either.” Boudin did not mention his elderly father, in Shawangunk prison, but he repeated the sentiment: “Please don’t forget about people who are behind bars.”