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Decades after 'Dead Man Walking,' Sister Helen Prejean still fights for social justice and to end the death penalty

Sister Helen at home, March 2019

Sister Helen at home, March 2019 Cheryl Gerber

Sister Helen Prejean didn’t plan on being a social justice warrior. When the Louisiana native joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1957 at age 18, she envisioned her religious life as consisting of praying to God to solve the problems of the world and being charitable to everyone around her.

“I was cocooned,” she says. It wasn’t until 1982, when she moved to the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans to work with the poor, that her eyes were opened to white privilege. She realized, “You can’t be apolitical in a democracy because if you don’t take a stand on anything, you’re supporting the status quo. And that’s a very political stance to take.”

Soon, she began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, a murderer on death row, and eventually accompanied him to his death – execution by electric chair. “I came out of that execution chamber and I just went, ‘This is not the gospel of Jesus,’” she says. “And at that time, there were not many church officials at all who were speaking out about the death penalty. But I knew what my eyes had seen.”

She felt called to be a witness to this “very secret ritual behind prison walls,” and wrote a book, Dead Man Walking, about her experiences counseling Sonnier and another inmate, Robert Lee Willie, on death row. 

Sister Helen admits she was in over her head. She didn’t know anything about the death penalty prior to her contact with Sonnier. But, she says, “the gift I found out of writing a book where you’re in over your head and you’re learning about stuff is you can take people with you on the journey.”

Upon the book’s publication in 1993, national polling showed that 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty. The assumption was that those sentenced to death were so dangerous, they’d continue to kill even when behind bars, putting fellow prisoners and guards alike at risk.

Actress Susan Sarandon with Sister Helen Prejean at a talk at Loyola University in 1996.

Actress Susan Sarandon with Sister Helen Prejean at a talk at Loyola University in 1996. Associated Press

It was believed these men were the worst of the worst, when in fact, what those on death row have most in common is not the severity of their crimes or the depravity of their characters, but that they were poor, didn’t have quality defense during trial, and were often residents of states in the Deep South. Another common denominator: 75 percent of those sentenced to death had killed white people.

“We’re the biggest incarcerators in the world, and we’re learning more and more how it’s a legacy of slavery, this mass incarceration of people, mostly people of color,” Sister Helen says.

When the paperback of Dead Man Walking came out in 1994, actress Susan Sarandon read it. By the end of 1995, a film adaptation of the book, starring Sarandon and Sean Penn, opened in New York and Los Angeles. In 1996, Sarandon won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sister Helen, bringing international attention to the work Sister Helen was doing.

Now in her 80s, Sister Helen has become one of the most visible figures in the fight against the death penalty. It would seem her work is paying off. Now, Americans are more likely to favor life without parole than the death penalty. Sister Helen credits the shift to education and awareness, not only about the disproportionate application of the death penalty, but about the cost of execution and the margin of error in the process. To date, 168 people have been wrongly condemned to death.

It was a major victory when, on August 2, 2018, after 1,600 years of dialogue, Pope Francis officially changed the teaching of the Catholic Catechism to state that under no conditions does the Church condone the governmental practice of executing citizens for a crime.

While progress has been made on that front, the Catholic Church still refuses to recognize the spiritual equality of women, denying them ordination as priests. “The woman’s issue is one that’s very slow and reluctant to change because it will mean a tremendous shift of power in the Church, to grant that women can be part of decision-making, that women can be leaders in prayer, and it takes a long time,” Sister Helen says. In her new memoir, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, Sister Helen closes with an open letter to Pope Francis addressing this very issue.

Imperfect though the Catholic Church may be, she also points out that it has always been an institution of pilgrimage. “We’re always going to be on the way. We’ll always need reform,” she says.

She echoes what Pope Francis has urged Catholics to do: Live the gospel as Jesus taught, to be on the margins of society where people are suffering and living with injustice, and to see the world as a field hospital where we must tend to the wounded and hurting.

But she also recognizes that church attendance is down and fewer people identify as religious these days. She believes this is, in part, because of how religion is used to justify inhumane acts, like detaining, separating, and caging immigrants at the border.

“People don’t see us, as Christians, really living out the good news of Jesus. They don’t see joyful people engaged in justice,” she says. “Religion should be what makes us come alive in the deepest dimensions of our lives. When we become alive, then people naturally are attracted and they become interested in what our spiritual foundation is.”

Core Convocation With Sister Helen Prejean
Where: Rauenhorst Ballroom at St. Catherine University
7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27. Click here for more information.