It was a career highlight to have been asked by friend and author Vince Font to edit the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. It was a wild ride through a story told by three distinct voices that covered over 30 years of Christopher Boyce’s and Cait Boyce’s lives. While we know a great deal of Cait’s experiences from the book, there are aspects of her life work that deserve closer attention. I’ve been very fortunate to get to know Cait since the book and below she shares thoughts about that work as we near her 60th birthday.
N.L.: On the eve of your 60th birthday, it’s astounding that you spent a third of your life fighting for the release of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee from prison! As you reflect on this milestone life marker, what drove you to keep going in light of so many obstacles?
C.B.: I’ve always been taught that we are more than the sum of our choices and decisions. When I involved myself in these cases, I had no clue what I was doing! Quite literally, everything I know about federal parole I learned on these two cases. As I became more involved with Daulton’s, then Chris’s cases, and with the parole system, I felt a deepening sense of distrust for the legal system and the way we incarcerate people. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the “system” as a framework for justice—but what struck me was we lock people up with no view to the end of the sentence. I made a promise to them, but also made a promise to myself that I would see this through to the end—and the end wouldn’t happen until the last one walked free.
A lot of things have been said about me—some of which are not very pleasant to hear. But the one thing that even my biggest detractors seem to agree on is the fact that I am tenacious and immovable when my mind is made up. While not a compliment, it’s that level of tenacity that makes me keep my promises—no matter how far-fetched they seem to be. Freedom for Boyce and Lee, really? Is there a more improbable notion from someone in their 20s? Yeah, right. Here we are, 33 years later, and Chris is at home laying bricks for a new patio…
N.L.: Over the years, you’ve gained expertise in the field of prison reform. Would you talk about that?
C.B.: I’m not sure that I have an expertise, per se, but prison reform became a huge issue for me when I saw how prisoners were treated.
I hear a lot of people complain that “the system molly-coddles inmates.” The constant refrain of “if you can’t do the time…” and that’s been the mentality of the people running the prisons as well. But every man or woman who is sent to prison, for whatever the reason, must be guaranteed that they will survive it. A case in point is the State Prison at Corcoran, California, where guards shot and killed seven inmates in the first 10 years of operation, and within the first nine months of operation guards shot and wounded three inmates in eight weeks. The shootings were ruled justified on the claim of the guards that they were protecting an inmate or another guard, but during the subsequent Department of Justice inquiry, they locked down and there was a “code of silence.” Physical restraint and non‑lethal weapons (gas or rubber bullets) were not used to stop fights and in 2000, eight Corcoran guards were indicted for arranging prison gladiator fights for recreation.
In the case of Boyce and many other inmates, solitary confinement and no human contact were used rather than physical violence. Many prisoners who are put in solitary confinement will try to take control of their environment by engaging in self-destructive behaviors like beating themselves or refusing to eat. Depression, schizophrenia and paranoia are a few of the side effects. And to what end? Mental illness among inmates is raging out of control. A study done in 2006 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that over half of all jail and prison inmates have mental health issues; an estimated 1.25 million suffered from mental illness. The current 2014 projection is that people with mental illness are over-represented in the criminal justice system by rates of two to four times the normal population. These are some pretty depressing statistics for the richest nation in the free world and they get worse with each passing year.
With the onset of mandatory minimum sentencing after the passage of the Crime Control Act, we also saw 18-year-old kids and old people serving inordinate amounts of time for first-time convictions. Many of the drug possession charges carried MMs of 20 to 25 years even for the young first-time offender. This means simply that a lot of first-time offenders, who weren’t really ‘criminals’ by definition, will eventually be released to a society who doesn’t want them and can’t support them. They will receive no mental health help, no counseling or training, and nothing that will prepare them for ultimate release. Believe me—if that 18-year-old could have been saved all those years ago, he’s lost now. And he’s angry, uneducated, unemployed, and once he hits the streets he’s going to go back to the only thing he knew. Now we’ve really criminalized him.
N.L.: Do you see any positive or encouraging changes in the prison system to address some of these issues?
C.B.: Last week, the Department of Justice announced a change after years of demands. Clemency Project 2014, a working group composed of the Federal Defenders, the ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has all moved forward to support change in the federal sentencing regulations and the Justice Department agrees on the plan to restore the integrity of the clemency process.
This is a terrific leg up for the men and women who have been locked down for years for non-violent offenses. It helps the aging prisoners and those that have already done more time than is humane. I’m testing this new-found vision by filing a clemency petition for one of my clients who has been locked down since 1983 for one count of espionage. He is now 80 years old and is routinely overlooked for parole. Let’s hope that now, at age 60, I’m still as tenacious as I was 33 years ago!
Writer/editor Nancy LaFever has been writing professionally for 10 years, crafting magazine articles, blogs, magazine profiles and copywriting for a diverse array of clients. In addition to her work on American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, LaFever recently edited the sci-fi/young adult book, Madolix.