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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.