Sister Helen Prejean: "the Bible belt and the death belt are the same"

At the "Women of the Year" lecture, the author of "Dead Man Walking" gives her account of campaigning against the death penalty.

Asked if she would be pen pal to a man on death row, Sister Helen Prejean thought little of it. Two years later, she stood with convicted murderer, Patrick Sonnier, as he was electrocuted. Prejean left the execution chamber, and vomited. “I couldn't believe he was dead. I thought, the people are never going to see this, I have to be a witness. I have to tell the story.” Since that day with Sonnier, Prejean has “walked with” five more men to their deaths, two of whom she believed to be innocent. Giving them counselling, spiritual direction, and praying with them, she has been with these men until minutes before their execution. Her book, Dead Man Walking, and the subsequent film, have made her one of the most well known anti-death penalty campaigners in the world.

Born and raised in Louisiana, Prejean quit a comfortable job in a suburban school to work in the projects in New Orleans. The suffering and injustice she saw there “set [her] heart on fire.” The death penalty was the ultimate price of this injustice. Its no coincidence, she points out, that, “eight out of ten people on death row are there ‘cause they killed white people...race is the determining factor.” Prejean recalls the case of Dobie Gillis Williams, “an IQ of 65, an African American man. Gets 16 years on death row for killing a white woman...They supply a constitutional protection, a jury of your peers. The jury was mostly white women.” What was the verdict going to be ? Her indigence is clear. “It’s 95 per cent political” she adds, the death penalty is used to get votes. “In California the average waiting time on death row is 20 years. The DA [district attorney] gives the death penalty, though he knows they [the prisoners] won’t get it in the end - but he wants to seem tough on crime.”

At its root, Prejean sees the problem is a US “culture of violence” that needs to change. There is a “seesaw” view of the world, “justice means, he’s dead- he dies.” Prejean has seen the pressure this puts on the families of victims to ask for the death penalty. Society says, “you have to be for the death penalty or it looks like you didn’t love your boy”she explains.

Prejean’s formidable drive is rooted in her religious principles. “The heart of a vocation to follow Jesus is clearly to see the transcendence of goodness and dignity of a person - a person is more than one act,” she says. It is this loss of dignity on death row that Prejean describes more than once, as “unspeakable.” “The demeaning way you live... strip searched every time you leave your cell...denied your medication.” You get “1,000 signals a day that you are disposable human waste.”

In a country where religion is so influential in politics, Prejean has come up against many of her peers, who denounce her teachings. “When a nation believes it is blessed in the eyes of god, there is an arrogance that we are special people and are doing right” Prejean says. There is a right-wing Christian view that “the more Christian you are the more you believe in the death penalty, because you know you should be punished for your sins..that God wants pain for pain.”

The answer to this is “relentless dialogue.” Educating people, working through their “biblical illiteracy.” She already sees change happening slowly, she points out “in 2000 there were 231 deaths sent from juries, last year there were 77.” “You have to start with the horror of the victims” she says. Then you “take them into the horror of taking a life.”

You can see how Prejean could have changed the minds of so many people. She is articulate and compelling. Her proselytizing style draws you in through impersonations of southern farmers, death row inmates, and supreme court judges, punctuated with powerful facts and moving personal accounts. Her skill and confidence is a reminder that in the south, religious figures have often taken the lead in political campaigns, especially in the civil rights movement. Prejean herself is a product of the Catholic church’s desire to be more relevant to public life, the Second Vatican Council in the sixties. The Catholic church could do with empowering a great many more women like her, if they want to create real positive change in their communities.

For Prejean, action is the true meaning of what it means to be religious. “When we act it liberates us. When we put our hands on the rope and start to pull, the life flows through us.”

Sister Helen Prejean speaks with the media about the bill. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May confirms Brexit Britain out of the single market – 8 other things we learnt

The Prime Minister dropped the Brexit bombshell that we're out of the single market, and more. 

Theresa May confirmed suspicions that the UK will leave the single market after Brexit in a major speech on her objectives.

The Prime Minister said the Brexit vote was a clear message about controlling immigration, and “that is what we will deliver” – but this meant the UK could not continue following the rules of the single market

She said: I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the  single market. European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the “four freedoms” of goods, capital, services and people.

"And being out of the EU but a member of the single market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are."

May also repeated that maintaining the open land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be a priority, and that she wanted trade deals with the rest of the world.

But leaving the single market wasn’t the only Brexit bombshell May dropped. Here is what we learnt:

1. The single market may be replaced by a European free trade deal

The Prime Minister has ruled out a single market, but is hoping for a deal to replace it. She said: “As a priority we will pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with our neighbours in Europe."

2. No more European Court of Justice

May said Brexit will end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain, and that “laws will be interpreted by judges not in Luxembourg but in courts across this country”.

3. Parliament will get a vote on the Brexit deal

Most MPs already expected to get a vote – as their peers in the European Parliament would get one. May confirmed this, saying: "I can confirm today that the government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.."

4. EU citizens still face uncertainty

May has always been clear she wants to confirm EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK, but only if British citizens receive the same guarantee in other EU countries.

She made no further guarantees, saying: "I have told other EU leaders that we could give people the certainty they want straight away, and reach such a deal now. Many of them favour such an agreement - one or two others do not"

5. She will try to stay in the customs union

May explicitly said the UK will have to leave the EU single market, but she was far more nuanced on the customs union, which negotiates trade deals on behalf of the EU member states.

She does not want Britain to share the EU’s common commercial policy, or be bound by common external tariffs, but does want to “have a customs agreement with the EU”. This could mean the UK becoming “an associate member of the customs union”. 

6. Some payments may continue

May said that Britain voted to stop large contributions to the EU, but she stopped short of ruling them out altogether. There may be payments that are “appropriate”, she said, if there are programmes the UK wants to be part of.  

7. Brexit could be in phases

The PM said several times she wanted to reassure businesses – who are increasingly unhappy about the uncertainty ahead. She wants the negotiators avoid a “cliff edge”, but also avoid “permanent political purgatory” (something Brexiteers fear). 

May suggested a deal could be done by the time the two-year process of Article 50 ends, and this could be followed by a “phased process of implementation”.

It’s worth bearing in mind at this point that two years in EU deal-making time is extremely speedy.

8. The UK’s nuclear option: Corporate tax haven

The Chancellor Philip Hammond has already floated the idea that a disgruntled Britain could slash corporate tax in order to attract unscrupulous multinationals to its shores.

May said that the UK would be prepared to crash out without an agreement, saying “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”. 

In such a situation, Britain "would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain". In other words, become an offshore tax haven. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.