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How San Francisco's D.A. Is Decreasing The Jail Population Amid COVID-19

Chesa Boudin's radical leftist parents were imprisoned when he was a toddler. Now he's working to reduce the inmate population in San Francisco — and worrying about his dad, who remains in prison.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's difficult or impossible to practice social distancing in an overcrowded prison, which is dangerous not only for the people who are incarcerated but also for the guards and other prison staff and for the families and communities they return home to. This is an issue of special concern for my guest, San Francisco's new DA Chesa Boudin. He's concerned about the health of prisoners in San Francisco jails and about the health of his 75-year-old father David Gilbert, who's in prison in New York. In 1981, Gilbert and Chesa's mother, Kathy Boudin, who were radical leftists, were arrested for driving the getaway car in a botched armed robbery of a Brink's truck. Two police officers and a guard were shot to death.

Chesa Boudin was 14 months old when his parents started serving time. He was raised by his parents' friends Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who were part of the radical group the Weather Underground, lived underground for years and later became educators active in education reform. Kathy Boudin was released on parole the same year that Chesa Boudin was leaving Yale for Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. That was in 2003. Chesa Boudin is now one of a growing number of DA's advocating reforms in the criminal justice system to reduce mass incarceration and address the racial and economic inequities in the system.

Chesa Boudin, welcome to FRESH AIR. How is your father?

CHESA BOUDIN: My father, David Gilbert, is incarcerated in a New York state prison. He's 75 years old, and I suppose he's doing well under the circumstances. As you're aware, the CDC has set a marker for high-risk in the context of COVID-19 at the age of 60, but it's sort of an arbitrary number. And we know that the risk grows exponentially as people get older. At 75 years old, having served nearly 40 years in prison, my dad is in a very high-risk category. He also has a number of underlying medical conditions that increase his risk.

And when he arrived in his current prison just a few months ago, there was not a single doctor on staff. We know that at least one guard in his prison has tested positive for COVID-19, and although it hasn't been in the news, I am told that at least five people have been hospitalized, inmates living in his prison with symptoms - fever, cough, et cetera - all associated with the coronavirus. Folks in the prison are being told that outside hospitals will no longer accept people coming from the prison and that the prison plans to use the gym as a triage center to hold up to 50 people if they become symptomatic.

So I am very concerned about my father. I think most people in the country right now are concerned about their elderly parents, but the conditions that my father's incarceration imposes on him make social distancing, good hygiene and access to emergency medical care basically impossible.

GROSS: He's in a single cell, but the cell is so small, it's still impossible to practice social distancing. Would you describe the problem?

BOUDIN: That's right. My father's lucky compared to most people who are incarcerated in that he does have his own cell. But, as is often the case, it's not a closed cell. It has an open wall of bars that opens onto a pathway adjoining numerous other individually celled inmates, and so there's no way to be fully six feet away from other inmates. The toilets are right up against the bars on the corridor. And so when any inmate is using the toilet, they're up against an open - essentially an open wall of bars. And there are so many people in the prison and on the particular cell block that social distancing is entirely impossible.

In addition, access to food, access to any other kinds of activities within the prison require moving, usually in large groups, from one place to another. And so it's for those reasons, among others, that medical professionals have been pointing out the extreme risks that jails and prisons pose not just to the people who are incarcerated there, like my father, but also to all of the correctional officers, sheriff's deputies, public health officials and staff who work in jails and prisons.

GROSS: So I know in the early days of the pandemic, you were worried about your father using the phone in prison, because there's, like, one phone for his unit. It doesn't work great, so you basically have to put your mouth really close to the phone in order to be heard. And, of course, that violates all the ways you're supposed to protect yourself against either transmitting or getting the virus. I don't know if that's even an option for him now. I mean, is the prison in lockdown? Does he even have access to a phone?

BOUDIN: My father does have some access to phones. It's different and more limited than his usual access. He is, at my request, taking extreme precaution when he uses the phone and, frankly, every time he leaves his cell. We are very worried about his health because of his underlying medical conditions and because of the fact that we know people in his prison have tested positive. It's one of the things that makes this period all the more frightening for us as a family of someone who's incarcerated - is lack of communication. He does still use the phone, and I have been able to talk to him about once a week, which I'm appreciative of and thankful for. But every time he uses the phone, he's quite literally taking his life in his hands.

GROSS: So I know you're worried about your father, who is in a New York prison. As the DA of San Francisco, you're concerned about the San Francisco County Jail, too. So how big is the outbreak in the jail in San Francisco?

BOUDIN: We've taken bold, aggressive action to make sure that there is not an outbreak in the San Francisco County Jail. San Francisco and the Bay Area, I think we're way ahead of the curve nationally in terms of taking bold measures to prevent the spread of the disease. And the same is true within San Francisco's county jail. As district attorney, public safety is my primary responsibility. And right now we recognize that the single biggest threat to public safety in San Francisco, as across the globe, is COVID-19. And what we need to do is let medical professionals guide public policy. It's what I wish the president of the United States would do, and it's what I'm trying to do to the extent possible with the San Francisco County Jail and criminal justice system.

The director of jail medical has made it very clear in writing, and repeatedly, that we need to reduce the jail population in order to avert disaster. And she's even given us a target number that she wants us to reduce the jail population to. What we've done is we've reduced the county jail population since I took office in January by nearly 40%. That has created the conditions for the jail medical team to implement some level of social distancing, to isolate people who are incarcerated who show symptoms, to find ways to actually meet the medical needs of folks who have other medical conditions besides COVID-19 who are housed in the jail. And in doing so, at least to date, we have managed to avert what could be a really catastrophic outcome. No one wants short-term, pre-trial incarceration to turn into a death sentence.

GROSS: So you've reduced the inmate population in the San Francisco jail by about 40%, and I think the number is now approximately, like, 750, 760, something like that. What did you do to reduce the population?

BOUDIN: Basically, what we did, Terry, was we analyzed the entire jail population in numerous different segments or slices. We came up with lists of people who met certain criteria that we wanted to focus on, either identifying for release or finding ways to expedite their release, if possible. So for example, we looked at inmates who were elderly. We looked at inmates who were incarcerated for misdemeanors. We looked at inmates who had been conserved and were simply in jail waiting for placement in an appropriate mental health facility. We looked at veterans. We looked at people who were being held simply because of their inability to pay a low bail amount. We looked at people who had already been sentenced and had an upcoming release date in the next couple of months. We looked at people who were incarcerated just because of a technical violation of probation or parole and so on.

One of the things that's interesting that we found in this process, Terry, is that it is, in fact, possible to safely and quickly decarcerate. We found a lot of people who, it turns out, shouldn't have really been incarcerated in the first place. For example, we had a mother who was conserved and was simply waiting for placement in an appropriate mental health facility. We were able to get her placement expedited rather than having her wait in jail for months on end, as is often the case. We had another young woman with a high-risk pregnancy with no criminal record, who was in jail on a misdemeanor. With our reentry partners, we were able to get that expecting mother into a prenatal care facility where she can stay safely until her birth.

Those are the kinds of people that make me wonder whether we were doing enough before this epidemic to reduce the jail population and to reduce our reliance on incarceration as a first response to so many of our social problems.

GROSS: So you are an advocate of criminal justice reform. And among the reforms that you have advocated and begun to undertake is changing the bail system so that, instead of cash bail, whether you get to stay out of jail while you're awaiting trial is based on risk and not on wealth. How far are you along in trying to do that in San Francisco?

BOUDIN: The problem with money bail, for those who aren't familiar with it, is that it puts a price tag on freedom. It says to someone who is wealthy that no matter how dangerous you are, you can buy your way out. And it says to someone who is poor that no matter how frivolous the charges against you - no matter how innocent you may be, no matter how strong your ties to the community and how low risk you may be, because of your poverty, you're going to languish behind bars.

In San Francisco, I am proud to say that one of my first mandates as district attorney was that my staff would never ask the court to impose money bail. If we believe someone is too dangerous to be released, then it doesn't matter how wealthy they are - we should ask the court to detain them. And if we believe that someone can safely be released to their community, then we should ask the court for whatever conditions or orders are necessary to ensure public safety with that person being released, consistent with the presumption of innocence, consistent with the Supreme Court mandate that liberty is the norm.

GROSS: William Barr, attorney general, has expanded early release of inmates in prisons that have large outbreaks in Louisiana, Connecticut and Ohio. But he also wrote, the last thing our massively overburdened police forces need right now is the indiscriminate release of thousands of prisoners into the streets without any verification that those prisoners will follow the laws when released. Do you share his concerns?

BOUDIN: Well, when framed that way, I do share it. But I think the key here is indiscriminate. What we're doing in San Francisco and what we're doing with other criminal justice partners across the state and across the country is anything but indiscriminate. We are being careful. We are being focused and surgical in our efforts to decrease the jail population. We are identifying people - people like my father, frankly - who are extremely low risk, who present no risk of public safety. When you see people like that who are incarcerated not because of a public safety risk but simply because of a commitment to vengeance and a punitive approach to criminal justice, you realize that we can quickly and safely reduce our jail and prison populations.

And so what we're doing in San Francisco is not releasing people who are committing crimes but rather people who can safely be released with the right supervision, the right support, the right structures. And we see that in the statistics on the street. Compared to March of 2019, this past month has seen a decrease in crime of approximately 40%. So we're both decreasing the jail population and seeing a parallel decrease in crime rates.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is San Francisco's new DA Chesa Boudin. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Chesa Boudin, San Francisco's new DA, who's dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on the city's criminal justice system.

You're an advocate and a practitioner of criminal justice reform. Your parents spent decades in prison. Your father's still in prison, and your mother was released on parole in 2003. Your mother's father - your maternal grandfather - was Leonard Boudin, a pretty famous civil liberties lawyer. And his clients included Julian Bond, Paul Robeson, Benjamin Spock, Daniel Ellsberg. Do you think having, like, parents who were in prison, guardians who raised you who were radical leftists who lived underground for a while, then having a grandfather who was a civil liberties lawyer - do you think that whole constellation of family is what motivated you to dedicate your life to criminal justice reform?

BOUDIN: Politics has always been personal for me. You know, growing up, I was in a very politically conscious household. We engaged with intellectuals and artists and academics from around the world who were thinking critically about politics and the intersection of politics and public life. My earliest memories are going through prison gates and metal detectors just to give my parents a hug. So I've been directly impacted by the criminal justice system and by the choices my parents made, which were politically motivated in many ways, since before I can remember.

So I absolutely think that that life experience, that my family history, shaped my personal and professional choices. And I think it gives me an insight into the difficult decisions I need to make as district attorney that is often missing from policymakers in the criminal justice sphere. Recognizing the complexity, the full humanity and the potential of every single person that we prosecute is a really critical and often missing component of criminal justice in this country.

And, by the same token, recognizing that we do not do nearly enough for crime victims - focusing on punishment and retribution is not healing the harm that victims have suffered, and it's also failing to rehabilitate people who commit crimes. And that's why we have such high recidivism rates, and it's why we have such high dissatisfaction rates with people in communities that are impacted by crime. Those realizations for me have and will always be intimate, personal.

GROSS: So your parents were convicted of being part of an armed robbery of a Brink's truck in 1981 that resulted in the death of two police officers and one guard. I mean, it is really so tragic that these three people died. What was the political motivation for doing this armed robbery? And once you have guns, there's always the likelihood somebody is going to get killed even if you didn't plan on taking any life. You're holding up a truck of money and robbing it with police officers. I mean, the odds of a shootout are pretty high. So what were they thinking? Do you know?

BOUDIN: I was 14 months old, and I was at the babysitter when this happened. I couldn't even talk. I had no idea, of course, what my parents were doing that day. But let me first start by saying that I condemn the crime my parents participated in. I mourn the loss of life that that crime caused. And I know and think about all the time the fact that the three families that lost their husband, their father, their loved one, will never, ever be made whole. Nothing I can do or my parents can do will ever bring those three men back.

It's also important to remember that, while my parents did play a role in the crime, neither of my parents was armed. Neither one of them was actually even at the scene of the robbery itself. They were getaway car drivers. And that doesn't mean they lack responsibility. It doesn't mean that it was improper for them to be punished and held accountable. It was. But I think it's also important that we remember and recognize the particular role that each individual person plays in a crime. We do it in virtually every area of criminal law.

The fact that my parents weren't armed, the fact that my father is literally the only person from that crime who is still incarcerated today even though he was not a shooter, even though he was not armed, is problematic. It's disproportionate. And it does not get us closer to bringing those three men back. It's a tragedy that I know weighs heavily on him every day of his life. He has, as long as I can remember, expressed his remorse for what he was part of, for the mistakes that he made and for the ways in which his political commitment to racial justice led him to participate in such a tragic and misguided crime.

GROSS: So do you understand what your parents' political motivation was when they participated in the armed robbery?

BOUDIN: My parents were shaped by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and my parents were inspired by Martin Luther King and by Malcolm X and by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Deep South. They were inspired by and active in Students for a Democratic Society, campus organizing against the Vietnam War. They were inspired by movements which were primarily nonviolent.

By the time they participated in the Brink's robbery in 1981, they'd been living underground and were really out of touch with the current political trends and with, I think, the organizations that were - and the people and the leaders that were still doing nonviolent political organizing work. My parents were motivated by a commitment to anti-racism and to social change. But what they participated in, if anything, set those goals and those movements back.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chesa Boudin, San Francisco's new DA, who's dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on the city's criminal justice system. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILFEMA'S "LITTLE WING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Chesa Boudin, San Francisco's new district attorney. He's dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on the city's criminal justice system and is a longtime advocate of criminal justice reform to address racial and economic inequities in the system.

His father is in prison. Both his parents, David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, were radical leftists who were convicted for driving the getaway car in a 1981 botched armed robbery of a Brink's truck that resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a guard. Kathy Boudin was released on parole in 2003, the same year that Chesa Boudin became a Rhodes scholar. She is now the co-director and co-founder of the Columbia University Center for Justice. Chesa Boudin was raised by his parents' friends Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who are former members of the radical leftist group the Weather Underground and became educators and education reformers.

There are so many children now who have parents who are incarcerated. What was the experience like for you, as a child, making so many visits to see your parents in prison, being searched before going in, seeing the conditions your parents were living in? Did it become a kind of normal thing for you? Or was it always upsetting to see that?

BOUDIN: In many ways, my experience was normal. It became normal to me the way it does to so many American families. Approximately 50% of adult Americans have an immediate family member who is either currently or formerly incarcerated. That's what mass incarceration means. Having a loved one behind bars has become a normal part for the majority of Americans at some point in their life.

And for me, as a kid, on the one hand, it was traumatic. It was anxiety-inducing. It set me back in school. It led to behavioral problems that are so common amongst children with incarcerated parents. And on the other hand, it did become normal. It became normal to go through metal detectors, to get patted down by guards, to have to go through steel gates every time I wanted to give my parents a hug. And I got to know and be friends with so many of the other children whose parents were in my parents' prisons over the years.

I saw firsthand most of the people in America's jails and prisons don't look like me. They're not white; they're black and brown. And I saw that most of those kids did not have the opportunities or the privileges that I had to grow up in a stable family, to get academic support from tutors, to see therapists as a child to help me overcome my anger and my shame and the stigma of parental incarceration. And in fact, many of those kids who I grew up with in the prison visiting room themselves ended up incarcerated.

And I also saw that, in many ways, as hard as my parents' incarceration has been and continues to be for me, as I live with the anxiety of my father being vulnerable to COVID-19, I was really lucky. There are three families that don't have a father anymore because of the crime that my parents participated in. Those families - from afar, I saw how they suffered, and I know that I will never be able to fully appreciate the loss that my parents' crime imposed.

GROSS: Did you ever meet those families?

BOUDIN: I have met some extended members of those families. We've been in contact indirectly through city leaders and clergy in their communities, and we've been in some email contact over the years. Yeah, I think for some of them, there's a recognition that, in a different way, I was also a victim of my parents' crime. I was left abandoned at the babysitter. I was innocent of any wrongdoing at 14 months old, and yet my life was turned upside down. I suffered a tremendous loss and destabilization and trauma that so many innocent children suffer when their parents commit crimes.

GROSS: It must've been kind of confusing for you as a kid to be raised in a stable family, to have a grandfather who was a famous civil liberties lawyer, but to be stigmatized by a lot of people who you grew up with because your parents were in prison. At the same time, when you'd visit your parents in prison, you felt very privileged by comparison. So you were kind of different in either world, in both of those worlds.

BOUDIN: I often felt like I had one foot shackled to the American prison system because of my parents' incarceration and another foot firmly rooted in the luxuries and privileges of the American dream - a stable family, a loving family, two older brothers I looked up to, a great school, sports teams, Model United Nations, chess club. And that reality continues to shape my life and my perspective.

I was in my father's prison visiting room earlier on the same day that I learned I'd won San Francisco's election to be district attorney. As long as my father's incarcerated and even beyond, even after he passes or even after he's released, I will always be shaped by, profoundly impacted by the experience of spending now nearly 40 years visiting prisons.

GROSS: Were you traumatized by that as a kid? Did you have nightmares about prison?

BOUDIN: I had nightmares, temper tantrums. I had anxiety attacks. I was set back in a variety of basic developmental markers. I stopped talking after my parents' arrest. I didn't fully learn to read until I was 9 years old. It required a tremendous amount of extra support and love just to get me back on track with my classmates. And that extra support and love, those resources are simply not available to most children with incarcerated parents. And frankly, they're not available to most crime victims, either.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is San Francisco's new DA, Chesa Boudin, who's part of the movement of progressive prosecutors working to reform the criminal justice system. We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chesa Boudin, San Francisco's new DA who's dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on the city's criminal justice system. He's also active in the movement to reform the criminal justice system. His father, who is 75 now, is in prison in New York.

So it's interesting that you decided to become a prosecutor because, you know, your parents were in prison. Your adoptive parents, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, they were members of the Weather Underground. And your father participated in bombings kind of some - intended to be, I think, symbolic bombings, but still bombings of buildings that were symbolic of the power that they were imposing. This was the era of the Vietnam War. So there's a bombing of the Pentagon, of the Capitol building, of a New York City police headquarters. So I - your father says they worked hard to make sure no one was injured. I'm not sure if anybody ever was injured during those bombings.

But still, like, your adoptive parents and your parents were people who intentionally broke the law for politically motivated reasons, reasons a lot of people would say that these are the wrong tactics to accomplish those goals. But still, you became a prosecutor. It would be hard to imagine - like, for me to imagine, anyways - your parents or your adoptive parents becoming prosecutors. So what led you into becoming a - into, you know, becoming a prosecutor?

BOUDIN: My earliest memories are going through steel gates and metal detectors just to give my parents a hug. My whole life has been shaped by the criminal justice system because of the mistakes that my parents made. And it's that life experience of seeing how broken our criminal justice system is that led me to go to law school, to become a public defender and, as a public defender, to see the ways in which our system is failing crime victims, is failing people accused of crime and is failing communities that are impacted by it.

It's because of that career and that life experience that I decided to be a prosecutor, to try to reimagine and reinvent the ways in which our law enforcement agencies help keep us safe and address the real harm that's caused by crime in our communities.

GROSS: I would imagine that you grew up with a lot of suspicion of police officers and people in the criminal justice system, of prosecutors because, again, your parents were behind bars, serving long sentences - a life sentence in your father's case - for their participation in a politically motivated robbery of a Brink's truck that led to three deaths. And your adoptive parents lived underground for a long time. They were members of the Weather Underground. And your father participated in acts of bombing in ways that he hoped wouldn't injure anybody.

So did you grow up very suspicious of people in law enforcement? And then there was also, of course, the FBI, who was spying on a lot of left-wing movements, including your father? Or including your adoptive father, including Bill Ayers, right?

BOUDIN: Right. And just to be clear, when you're talking about the bombings, you're talking about my adoptive father, not my biological father who was incarcerated.

GROSS: Yes.

BOUDIN: And, again, you know, I've been really clear today and throughout my life that I don't endorse or support many of the choices my parents made. I condemn the use of violence as a tool for social change. And I think that it's - you know, it's important to judge their actions in the context of history. In the 1970s - the '60s and '70s, there were thousands of bombings across the country, most of which were not in any way connected to my adoptive parents or their groups. It was a very different period than the one that I've lived through.

And today, as in the 1960s and '70s, there are communities that do not perceive the police or law enforcement, generally, as a force for good in their neighborhoods, and that's something that I'm working hard to change. We have a lot of people, particularly people of color, who perceive the presence of police in their neighborhoods and their communities as a force for oppression, as something that holds people down, as something that targets for harassment and racial discrimination. And we know that there's racism at every single step of the criminal justice system.

So yes, I was aware of the ways in which criminal justice actors, including police, perpetuate and exacerbate racial disparities in our society. And it's one of the things that I ran my campaign on, is finding ways to reduce those racial disparities, finding ways to rebuild the trust between law enforcement and the communities that we've sworn to serve and protect.

GROSS: Your parents found ways in prison to do good work. Your mother started an education and literacy program in prison, and your father, I think, started a program for prisoners with AIDS. I think your mother started, also, a program for incarcerated mothers. Was that encouraging to you to think that even in prison you could find a way to be helpful and productive and that your parents managed to find ways of doing that?

BOUDIN: Absolutely. Both of my parents were really active within prison and finding ways to give back and be supportive of their communities. My father pioneered a prisoner education program for people with AIDS, and that was at a time when the HIV-AIDS epidemic was really threatening stability, not just lives but also the stability of prison life because people were so scared and, as today with COVID-19, forced to live in close proximity to each other with very limited access to health care and very limited information about how the disease was spread.

And my father's work in that area in the late 1980s and early 1990s not only saved lives but also became a model for other prisons across the state and across the country. My father's also been a peer educator in anti-violence trainings, working with other inmates to learn techniques for de-escalating tense situations to prevent violence. You know, my father's been remorseful. He's been repentant. He has been rehabilitated.

GROSS: Your mother got out of prison in 2003 on parole, and it was just about at the same time that you became a Rhodes scholar. So I think within two weeks, she got out of prison and then you went to Oxford to pursue your work as a Rhodes scholar. What were those two weeks like for you?

BOUDIN: It was a pretty emotionally intense period. I was actually on a visit in my father's prison when I got the news that my mother had been physically released. We knew she'd been granted parole, but we didn't know the exact date. And I wanted to visit my father one last time before heading off to Oxford. And so I was with him in the moment when my mother was released. I left immediately my father's prison and went back to New York City where my mother had been paroled to.

And I remember when she met me at the airport. And it was a pretty powerful moment for me, for us to see her wearing something other than her prison green uniform, to be able to hug her and not have anyone tell us that we should stop hugging, to be able to walk down the street with her and share so many of the little details that make up daily life in a way that I'd never ever been able to do with her in my living memory.

GROSS: She is now the co-director and co-founder of the Center for Justice at Columbia University. So she managed to carve out a very good and productive, meaningful place for herself. Were you surprised that she would able to do that after spending so many years in prison?

BOUDIN: The transition back to the community after incarceration is always challenging, and it was challenging for my mother. But I never had a doubt in my mind about her ability to succeed. She's a hard worker. She's someone rooted in community, ambitious and optimistic and deeply committed to the people in her community and around her.

So when she came home, she immediately started doing work in a public hospital, helping people with HIV/AIDS and other similar diseases. She also simultaneously earned her doctoral degree from Columbia University. Then she, I think, completed her dissertation within just a few years of her release. She's someone who, despite the mistakes she's made, has always been an inspiration to me because of her work ethic and her profound commitment to humanity.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is San Francisco's new DA Chesa Boudin. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Chesa Boudin, San Francisco's new DA who's dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on the city's criminal justice system.

During the years when both of your parents were incarcerated and in separate prisons and they couldn't communicate, were you kind of the go-between? Did they give you messages? Did your father give you messages for your mother and vice versa to relay?

BOUDIN: Yeah. My parents did sometimes communicate through me, send love to each other through me. And when I'd be visiting one of my parents, we'd often coordinate in advance to look at the sun or look at the sky together. And as a kid, my parents would tell me and remind me that even though we couldn't be together, we were all looking at the same sun or all looking at the same sky.

GROSS: That's very sweet to look at it together at the same time but separate.

BOUDIN: My parents found countless creative ways to parent, even from the distance that incarceration created. On phone calls, they would tell me adventure stories. And they would plan the stories, the plotline of those stories in advance with each other through prison mail. And then they would alternate telling one chapter of the story at a time to me on the phone calls that we could have one-on-one but not as a group.

GROSS: What were the stories about?

BOUDIN: All different kinds of adventures - boating down the Amazon River, traveling through Africa, you know, the kinds of things that any parents would tell adventure stories to their kids about - having superpowers, flying, you know, through the sky, playing with dinosaurs. All different things - but the themes, as you'd expect with children's adventure stories, tended to revolve around me being a superhero of some kind and, of course, our family being together.

GROSS: Did you enjoy the stories?

BOUDIN: Oh, I loved them. I looked forward to those calls. I couldn't wait for the next call from the next parent to tell me the next chapter.

GROSS: I didn't know this until we started talking today - after we'd set up the interview and after I had prepared - but your father has applied for clemency. So what grounds is he asking for clemency on, and is it connected at all to COVID-19?

BOUDIN: It is related to COVID-19, Terry. My father and a number of other older, medically vulnerable inmates have applied for clemency. And I'm aware of efforts within New York state to review those clemency applications for the people who are most at risk of dying because of COVID-19. I think it's appropriate and wise for Governor Cuomo to look closely at people who are vulnerable. He's doing a phenomenal job leading New York - and in many ways the country - through this crisis. And we cannot succeed in our fight against COVID-19 if we forget about people who are incarcerated.

We've talked on this show today at length about the ways in which people who are incarcerated are uniquely vulnerable. My father is one of those people, and I hope that my father and others like him will be released for their safety as well as the safety of their families and everyone working in jails and prisons.

GROSS: This might be too personal, but if your father succeeds in getting clemency and is released, do you think that he and your mother would resume their marriage? They haven't been together in so long. I don't know how often she visits him, if at all. I don't know if they still consider themselves to be partners.

BOUDIN: They have a very close relationship, but it was obviously damaged by the decades that they both spent in prison, the decades that my father has spent in prison since her release. They weren't really allowed to have any meaningful contact during the more than 20 years my mother spent in prison. And it was an amazing experience for me to go visit my father with my mother when she was first allowed to visit him, years after her release. I don't know what would happen in terms of their relationship if they're released - if my father were to be released.

But I know that my mother and I are dedicated to supporting my father, that we love him very much and that we would support him in his transition back to the community, if he were granted clemency.

GROSS: Chesa Boudin, I want to thank you so much. And I wish you well. I wish your father well.

BOUDIN: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure. Always happy to talk with you. Hope we can do it again soon. And hope you all are staying safe out there.

GROSS: Chesa Boudin is San Francisco's DA.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll remember songwriter and singer John Prine, who died Tuesday of COVID-19. He was 73. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June. We'll listen back to the interview we recorded in 2018. I hope you'll join us.

We're closing today's show with music produced by Hal Willner. He died yesterday at the age of 64. His symptoms were consistent with COVID-19, but he was not officially diagnosed. What we're hearing now is pianist Jaki Byard playing the theme from the Fellini film "Amarcord," a track from Willner's tribute album to Nino Rota, who wrote music for several Fellini films.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD'S "AMARCORD")

GROSS: Willner was a longtime music supervisor on "Saturday Night Live," produced albums by Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell and others and curated great tribute albums for which he got musicians and singers he loved to record the music of composers and genres he loved. In addition to the Rota tribute album, Willner recorded albums paying tribute to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, Disney films and sea chanteys. Over the years, we've often played music from his tribute albums at the end of our show or between segments.

Here's one more track that Hal Willner was responsible for. This is Lou Reed singing "September Song" from Willner's album "Lost In The Stars," featuring songs by Kurt Weill.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER SONG")

LOU REED: (Singing) When I was a young man courting the girls, I played me a waiting game. If a maid refused me with tossing curls, oh, I'd let that old earth take a couple of whirls, while I plied her with tears in place of pearls. And as time came around, she came my way. As time came around, she came. For it's a long, long while from May to December. And the days grow short when you reach September. And I have lost my teeth, and I'm walking a little lame. Hey, honey, I haven't got the time for any waiting game. And the days turn to gold as they grow few. September, November and these few golden days, I'd like to spend them with you. These golden days, I'd like to spend them with you.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER SONG")

REED: (Singing) And the days dwindle down to a precious few - September, November. And I'm not quite equipped for these waiting games. I have a little money, and I've had a little pain. And these few golden days, as they grow so few, these golden days...

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Hal Willner died Tuesday, April 7. In this report, we incorrectly say he died Wednesday.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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