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
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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.