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.

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

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.”