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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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.