Sister Helen Prejean: Educating against the death penalty

This year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty was devoted to “Teaching abolition”. To mark the occasion, world renowned anti-death penalty campaigner, Sister Helen Prejean, gave Amnesty International her personal account on how educating people on the issue of the death penalty can make a difference.

Sister Helen Prejean has been the Religious Education Director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans. She has also been the Formation Director for her religious community and has taught junior and senior high school students.

Sister Helen began her prison ministry in 1981 when she dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans. While living in the St. Thomas housing project, she became pen pals with Patrick Sonnier, the convicted killer of two teenagers, sentenced to die in the electric chair of Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. Her autobiographical account of her relationship with Patrick Sonnier and other death row inmates was recounted in the Oscar-winning film “Dead Man Walking”.

Fifteen years after beginning her crusade, the Roman Catholic sister has witnessed five executions in Louisiana and today educates the public about the death penalty by lecturing, organizing and writing. As the founder of “Survive,” a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, she continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but also the families of murder victims.

“Educating the people about the death penalty is the very soil out of which abolition grows,” is how Sister Helen explains the importance of educating people about the issue. “When I emerged out of the death chamber in LA, having just watched Patrick Sonnier electrocuted to death, I knew that what I had to do was go out and wake people up about the issue.  

“Because most never see the inside of a prison, much less the killing chamber, how will the people become conscious of the issue without some of us waking them up?  It’s why I travel across the US and give talks; why I wrote my two books and collaborated with Tim Robbins for the film of Dead Man Walking (DMW) and Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally for the opera of DMW. ”

Sister Helen said that the only way to stir consciousness and conscience is massive, unrelenting public discourse in as many forms as possible.

She said that there is a cluster of issues that provide the synergy to persuade people about the death penalty:

•    Help them understand the agony of victims’ families waiting 10 or 20 years for so-called justice. It is also important to stand with them in feeling the outrage over the violent death of their loved one.
•    Help them understand the humanness of the one being killed. People are worth more than their worst acts – show the humanness through stories.
•    Show how broken and selective and racist the practice of the death penalty is, which leads to inevitable mistakes. In the US, 135 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated and are off death row, mostly because of the work of college volunteers in Innocence Projects.
•    Show the track record after 30 years of practice – states that execute the most have higher violent crime rates than states that don’t.
•    Point out the cost – even prosecutors call death penalty cases the Cadillac of the criminal justice system.

Sister Helen says the work to educate people of the realities of executions in the USA has been very important.

“Awareness of mistakes in the system has made people wary of the criminal justice system where before they simply thought that the US had the ‘best court system in the world.’ There has been a real shift in attitudes of Catholics, now below the national average in support for the death penalty. The soil of dialogue is more porous now, not as hard and hostile.”

She adds that certain sections of the population are most responsive: young people, those close to the struggles of poor people, and Catholics. Her approach to teaching people who know nothing about the issue, particularly young people, is informed by what she’s been doing for 20 years with the public.

“Stories studded with facts about the death penalty. Tim Robbins has written the play of ‘Dead Man Walking’, which is being performed across the nation in high schools and universities.  The drama is at the centre of the discourse, but at least two other departments are required to read the book and take on the issue in classes, art depts., etc. It’s having a huge impact.”

She points out that all English speaking schools can do the play, not just those in the US.  

“By delving into the death penalty, students and faculty delve into the meaning of human rights and have a forum in which to discuss torture. Is the death penalty the practice of mental or physical torture?”

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner.