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 Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May missed an easy opportunity on EU citizens' rights

If the UK had made a big, open and generous offer, the diplomatic picture would be very different.

It's been seven hours and 365 days...and nothing compares to EU, at least as far as negotiations go.

First David Davis abandoned "the row of the summer" by agreeing to the EU's preferred negotiating timetable. Has Theresa May done the same in guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens living here indefinitely?

Well, sort of. Although the PM has said that there have to be reciprocal arrangements for British citizens abroad, the difficulty is that because we don't have ID cards and most of our public services are paid for not out of an insurance system but out of general taxation, the issues around guaranteeing access to health, education, social security and residence are easier.

Our ability to enforce a "cut-off date" for new migrants from the European Union is also illusory, unless the government thinks it has the support in parliament and the logistical ability to roll out an ID card system by March 2019. (It doesn't.)

If you want to understand how badly the PM has managed Britain's Brexit negotiations, then the rights of the three million EU nationals living in Britain is the best place to start. The overwhelming support in the country at large for guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens, coupled with the deep unease among Conservative MPs about not doing so, meant that it was never a plausible bargaining chip. (That's before you remember that the bulk of the British diaspora in Europe lives in countries with small numbers of EU citizens living in the UK. You can't secure a good deal from Spain by upsetting the Polish government.) It just made three million people, their friends and their families nervous for a year and irritated our European partners, that's all.

If the United Kingdom had made a big, open and generous offer on citizens' rights a year ago, as Vote Leave recommended in the referendum, the diplomatic picture would be very different. (It would be better still if, again, as Vote Leave argued, we hadn't triggered Article 50, an exit mechanism designed to punish an emergent dictatorship that puts all the leverage on the EU27's side.)

As it happens, May's unforced errors in negotiations, the worsening economic picture and the tricky balancing act in the House of Commons means that Remainers can hope both for a softer exit and that they might yet convince voters that nothing compares to EU after all. (That a YouGov poll shows the number of people willing to accept EU rules in order to keep the economy going stretching to 58 per cent will only further embolden the soft Brexiteers.)

For Brexiteers, that means that if Brexit doesn't go well, they have a readymade scapegoat in the government. It means Remainers can credibly hope for a soft Brexit – or no Brexit at all. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496