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Helen Prejean.

Insightful, quick-witted, and gutsy, Sister Helen Prejean is the author of the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, published by Random House in 1993 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book is a detailed study of the death penalty in the United States. It also tells the true story of a friendly, down-to-earth nun who brought love to a death-row killer, and to the families of his victims. It weaves in startling facts about the death penalty, and ushers readers into the execution chambet with Prejean, to witness the grisly electrocution of the prisoner she had.befriended.

Prejean's walk with a death-row inmate is now the subject of a movie to be released in late December. Starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as an unrepentant murderer, Dead Man Walking depicts the moral struggles involved during the long countdown to execution. In January, Columbia Records will release a benefit album of songs written about the death penalty by major recording artists.

Back in 1987, I met Prejean at a candlelight vigil held to protest the executions of eight death-row inmates. Even then, she was a powerful witness against the empty political rhetoric and the vengeful "eye-for-an-eye" mentality behind capital punishment. Today, she is one of the most influential voices ever to be heard on this issue.

Q: You were the middle daughter of a lawyer and a nurse living on the cusp of upper-class society. You grew up in an idyllic country home outside of Baton Rouge and could have done anything with your life. What made you decide to become a nun?

Prejean: Well, we're what you'd call a deeply Catholic family--it's in everybody's DNA molecules. At one point, my mother thought of becoming a nun, and my father was an altar boy who thought about being a priest. He had priests over to the house a lot, and the involvement with the Church was always there.

I remember the mystery in the mass--the silence, prayer, music, incense, candles, the big vaulted church, and the saints in the stained-glass windows. It gave me a sense of this invisible presence--that God was somehow with me and the most important thing was to do God's will, to hear that voice and follow it. That's been with me my whole life. I had this thought that there was another way of loving people besides marrying and having a family, and I saw that the sisters did that. By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Q: You joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in New Orleans and were perfectly happy living the contemplative life for twenty years. What changed that?

Prejean: I was forty years old before I realized the connection between the gospel of Jesus and the poor. I tended to stay away from social justice, thinking it was too political, or that we were nuns, we weren't social workers. I would go out to teach--we are what is called an apostolic order--but it was still within a monastic framework of religious life. But then, things were bubbling up in the community. We had missionaries down in Latin America coming back and saying that the peasants were really struggling and we needed to get involved with them. I realized that I had to be among the poor and learn from them what I might be called to do. That's how I got to the St. Thomas Housing Project, in a brown Toyota truck on June 1, 1981.

Q: What was it like when you got there?

Prejean: It was a shock. Growing up in the forties and fifties I had known black people only as my family's servants. Now it was MY turn to serve them. It didn't take long to see that for poor people, especially poor black people, there was a greased track to prison and death row. As one woman put it, "Our boys leave here in a police car or a hearse."

It was a very scary place. You'd hear shootings and see blood on the sidewalk sometimes. There were rampant drugs, and the housing was terrible. There was an old lady in her eighties who had a roof leak in her apartment for years. She was in a wheelchair and couldn't get her feet off the floor all the time. She got an infection in her foot and died.

You know there's poverty and you know there's racism, but to be there and to live among the people and to see how the police treated them, that's a whole other thing.

Q: How did this involve you in death-penalty work?

Prejean: I had never immersed myself in a situation where people were struggling so hard against so many odds. St. Thomas brought me to this level of humanness with people, to a deep point of solidarity and compassion and identification.

That kind of grounding, humility, and just humanness was really good for me. It was in this context that Chava Colon [of the Louisiana Coalition of Prisons and Jails] said, "Hey, you wanna write to a death-row inmate?" I said sure. I didn't know anything about the guy yet, but I already knew enough about how the system worked, that if he was on death row, he was poor. I was there to serve the poor.

Q: Your intention was simply to write Patrick Sonnier, the inmate. What changed your mind?

Prejean: What transformed me, and what I think transforms anyone into activism, is being with people and witnessing their suffering. You have to experience the injustice of what they go through. Even when you see that, you might walk away and try to be neutral and say, "Well, there's nothing I can do." But it's different if you are immersed in something and you watch people suffer, like at St. Thomas. From what I saw, I could no longer say, "Oh well, I'm not political."

Watching and seeing suffering has a way of getting inside of you, and you catch on fire. When you see the injustice that's causing the suffering, you've got to do something about it.

Otherwise, you become complicit. Like Desmond Tutu said, "If an elephant is standing on a mouse's tail and you watch that and you say, "Well, I'm neutral in this situation," the mouse will not appreciate that very much."

In this experience with Patrick Sonnier--where first I wrote him, visited him, and then watched him die--I came out rebaptized. I had watched a man's death right in front of my eyes. I knew I was one of the few people in this country who had really seen this thing close up. It's a secret ritual done at midnight. People don't see it. All they have is the political rhetoric. It was a tremendous mantle of responsibility placed on my shoulders--to speak out.

Q: How do you hope to reach people through your book?

Prejean: It gives readers a private space; they enter into its world. They get the information but also an emotional experience. They meet not only the death-row inmate and his family but also the families of the murder victims--those that follow the route of revenge and those who say they want to get out from underneath the hatred and bitterness and don't want revenge.

They also meet the twelve prison officials hired by the state of Louisiana to carry out their jobs, and they see what it means to kill a person--to take someone from a cell and to. strap him in and kill him. They come to the truth not just from the head but from the heart.

Q: What about the movie? Does it fairly represent the issues involved in capital punishment?

Prejean: Yes, but the movie is not a polemic; it doesn't try to tell people what's wrong. It's the story of a nun who gets involved with the poor, starts writing to a death-row inmate, goes to visit him, and gets more and more involved--mostly because he's got nobody else and he needs and trusts her. She accompanies him to his execution.

It doesn't offer any simple, easy answers. It is a story of redemption and of a journey made by everyone involved. It's filled with ambivalence and complexity. People can go to the movie and come out saying, "Yeah, I'm for the death penalty. I was before and I am now." Others can come out and say, "I don't know."

Q: How did the movie come about?

Prejean: Susan Sarandon was doing The Client in Memphis, and her agent gave her my book. She was coming to New Orleans to do that flying scene at the end, and she called me up. She said she was always looking for substantive roles and that she was very intrigued with what happened in this story. This nun is a fighter, a scrapper, and she saw it as a strong role. Plus, she hadn't been a nun yet.

We talked at a restaurant, and she thought Tim Robbins would be very interested in doing a film. He read the book, and I went up to New York and met with him. He said, "We're going to do this film."

Q: Robbins wrote the script and directed the film. Was he attracted to the project by some sort of philosophical viewpoint or personal belief?

Prejean: He's an intellectual. He wants to bring people close to the issue and see it for what it really is. So he used a death-row inmate you don't really love, so people would say, "Fry him, throw him away." He wanted people to see this nun trying to apply everything she learned about Christ--which is that all people are deserving of love--and yet have difficulty loving this guy. He wanted people to see that the death penalty comes down to the sergeant, the warden, and the different people who have to carry it out and what it means for them. You see the chaplain, who has a different view of religion from the nun, and you see his complicity in the way he uses religion to uphold the authority of the state.

I think Tim Robbins saw all of these dimensions and said to himself, "We've got two hours and we want people to get under the rhetoric and experience this." It's powerful. Everybody in the film faces moral questions.

Q: Like what?

Prejean: Like, is there unconditional love, and is there redemption for all of us? Because it's not just redemption for the inmate, but for the chaplain, who believes that all you do is zap people with the sacraments and that's all that religion entails. That's what he tells her: "Sister, that is your job."

Q: Does the movie give viewers any answers?

Prejean: It will leave them with some really goodquestions and put them on a road.

Q: It sounds like encouraging questions is what you've tried to do in your work.

Prejean: Yes, and to give people good, solid information out of which to raise questions. Because if you're operating out of fear or in a superficial, knee-jerk way, you're really not making deep moral decisions. You're reacting rather than responding.

So it's a deepening, and that's what spirituality ought to be about. It ought to be about moving from the surface down into what's underneath, and then calling forth the deepest, most human qualities from us--our capacity for love, our capacity for compassion and identification, our capacity to build community rather than to sever people and isolate.

Instead, we see this superficiality pandered to by so many televangelists giving us this lurking image of God--the image that says pain for pain and suffering for suffering. The image that's based on fear and burning people in a big frying pan in hell. What kind of God stands behind the death penalty? That's another question raised by the movie: what's your image of God?

Q: Do you think Americans have rejected the eye-for-an-eye image of God?

Prejean: I think there's a spiritual search going on in this country, but I'm concerned about the rightwing, fundamentalist stuff which offers such easy solutions. It's almost like the death penalty: this simplistic, "easy" solution to crime. There's this strong desire not to deal with ambiguities, but to put things into absolutes. Almost always when you put things into absolutes, you find that compassion suffers.

Many people tend to sift through the Scriptures and select truth according to their own templates. We build the image of God from our own lives. But I couldn't worship a God who's less compassionate than I am.

And you have this simplistic thing, too, of patriotism and religion: "God is with government. If government's doing it, God blesses it because government is authority and God is the ultimate authority."

We have to get past that kind of thinking. Spirituality is rooted in personal integrity, community, and love.

Q: Are you saying that religion plays a part in upholding death and violence?

Prejean: It plays a very big part. Some polls show that the more often people go to church, the more they believe in the death penalty.

I want to say that Christianity is domesticized, so acculturated--a comfortable religion of people, rather than a religion dealing with the real challenge of what Jesus was all about. I mean, Jesus had people of all classes and types eating together when the whole culture was about keeping people apart. Jesus moved across the whole spectrum of society and said, "This is what it means to have the kingdom of God, when people are sisters and brothers." In this country today, the most segregated day of the week is Sunday, when people go to church.

Churches are segregated, class-oriented. They preach about this personal God that will love and comfort me, and there's very little about standing in solidarity with the people who are suffering the most. Very little about building one body, one community--which means crossing over into the inner cities and building community together so that if one of us is hurt, all of us are hurt.

Q: It sounds as if you're saying that a spiritual awakening is necessary within the nation's churches.

Prejean: Yes. I would hope for that, definitely within my church. The book I'm writing now is about the Catholic Church's discrimination against women, which is upheld by the religious principle that only men can represent Christ. Well, I want to explore that. How did we get to that? How could it still be in place at the end of the Twentieth Century? I want to show what happens to people operating out of this prejudice. How does it affect other things in society? If only men can represent Christ at the altar, does that connect with why women are beaten in the home and kept down in education? Because that's a sacrament, as if God wants this. How does it affect everything else?

Q: How can you, as a radical thinker, be a nun in a Church that appears to be so ideologically conservative?

Prejean: It's not monolithically conservative, though; that's the key thing. On the death penalty, it's been hospitable to me, because the U.S. Catholic Bishops have been very strong against the death penalty and so have a growing number of bishops around the world.

Q: What about other issues, though--how can you be part of a Church with so many problems with its politics?

Prejean: Because all organizations I know of are weeding weeds. They never bat 1,000. Some things are coming up right; some are coming up wrong. That's what it means to belong to any democracy, a religious community, the city of New Orleans. You can't expect that some people have all the light, and some have all the darkness. It's just human, the way things are. It's an evolving struggle.

I feel like I'm following the gospel mandate, and part of that is being on the side of the poor and seeking social justice and social transformation. I don't have to wait for a bishop's permission to act, or to act only as they tell me to do.

Q: Your religious order has fully supported your work. Why is that?

Prejean: When you look at the Biblical tradition of the prophets--Micah, Jeremiah, and Amos--you see prophets speaking out against injustice and linking it to God. That's very deep in the religious tradition which, of course, Martin Luther King and the whole civil-rights movement tapped into.

You enter into the public debate because you have seen the suffering. As Gandhi said, the first thing you have to do is expose the evil. So that's what I began to do. I spoke to any group that would hear me, then I began to write. I was determined that Patrick Sonnier's death would not be in vain. Because I had witnessed it, I would bring this story to people and work to change things.

Q: And so you did. You organized protest marches, a legal office to file death-row appeals, a support group for the families of murder victims, and the Louisiana Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. All the while, you were counseling death-row inmates and writing your book. For the past three years, you've chaired the National Coalition, during which time the Clinton Administration expanded death-penalty offenses under the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994. What do you think will come out of this--besides more executions?

Prejean: You know, it's interesting. We've been hearing the rhetoric about the death penalty for a long time. Almost all politicians are now on board with the rhetoric. They have an easy symbol: "Oh yeah, I'm tough on crime. I'm for the death penalty. So-and-so is not. She's soft on crime." They have their symbol, and it's been pushed on every level. We have thirty-nine states with the death penalty. The crime bill expanded the death penalty to include sixty crimes. Congress has cut back on the habeas appeal, and there was just a move to cut back on the federal resource centers to defend people on death row. So the ante has been pushed to use the death penalty.

Now, I believe the challenge is for politicians who support the death penalty to defend that it's really working. That's going to be hard to do, since there's already conclusive evidence showing that it does not prevent crime. As the death penalty is used more, the racism will come out, and the obvious classism.

You've got close to 3,000 people on death row in this country, and virtually all of them are poor. You begin to see how the thing pans out, how it really works.

Q: What are the inequities?

Prejean: One of them is that it depends on who gets killed. When a poor person or a person of color is killed, you won a D.A. pursue the maximum punishment. Politicians can use their rhetoric until the cows come home--that the death penalty is for "anybody that does these heinous, terrible crimes"--but it's really about who got killed. The status of the victim is the first thing to propel it.

The second thing is what kind of money is available for defense. If there's anything we've learned from the O.J. Simpson trial, it's that when you have a battery of defense lawyers, you are probably not going to be convicted. They've done their job all too well, and that's to raise questions about the evidence.

You compare that with poor people and the kind of defense they get. The most shocking thing to me, when I got into this, was that I presumed that poor people might not have the best defense but that it would be adequate. Then I found out that Pat Sonnier's attorney had visited with him for two half-hour periods to prepare his defense. One was on the morning of the trial. The jury was picked in a couple of days, guilt or innocence was decided in a few days, and he was sentenced to death by Friday afternoon. That's what happens to poor people.

Some of it is a pure lottery. A prosecutor in one county will go for the death penalty; another won't. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, over 70 percent of all U.S. executions have taken place in five Southern states: Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia.

Q: Why is that?

Prejean: Poverty. Race. The punishment for people who do things to white people in the southern states. You look at the Black Codes that were drawn up after Reconstruction. You see that legislatures actually wrote up codes for a white crime and a black crime. If a black man stole or raped: "Death penalty, death penalty." If a white person kills: "Well, we're gonna look at this." The punishment is far less. You can see racism in the criminal-justice system, and it's always been present.

Q: Why have we recently seen an expansion of the death penalty?

Prejean: What you have here is the politicization of the issue, and when you're dealing with politics, you're dealing with symbols. In Clinton, you see what has happened to a lot of politicians. They're afraid, because dealing with true anti-crime measures is complex.

Q: But you believe that the Violent Crime Control Act will help by making the injustice more visible?

Prejean: Right. Now, we're going to be able to educate people because they're going to see that the death penalty doesn't make any difference in the crime rate. Cases are going to keep emerging, and we'll see innocent people on death row. More people will be thinking about the death penalty, and they won't have easy answers.

Louisiana is a good example. In 1987, Louisiana executed eight people in eight and a half weeks. They were all lined up. Well, in the quarter immediately afterward, the murder rate in New Orleans went up 16.3 percent. But the most noticeable effect was that Louisiana juries pretty much stopped handing out the death penalty for two and a half years.

Before that, people thought they would hand out the death penalty but that the defendants would never die. Well, they found out that people do die and it's in their hands.

Take the Susan Smith case--look how people were calling for her death. The polls showed that 65 to 68 percent of the people in this country felt that Susan Smith ought to die for what she did to her kids. But you have a unanimous jury decision that she should live. There's an amazing difference between abstraction; and what happens when people have a life in their hands and hear the mitigating circumstances of a crime.

Q: So you think that, despite the polls, in their hearts people are not for the death penalty?

Prejean: Many people are not. The death penalty is not something people talk about at their supper table or wake up in the morning discussing. They're concerned about other moral things that hit closer to home. So first, it's not something that touches their lives, so they don't do a lot of thinking about it.

Secondly--big discovery--is how ambivalent many people feel about it. You ask them that abstract question, and they say, "Yeah, yeah, I'm for it." But then you say, "So, Susan Smith, should she get it? O.J. Simpson? Should mentally retarded people get the death penalty?" Our Supreme Court has allowed them to get it. And juveniles--we're one of the only nations in the world willing to execute juveniles.

The more concrete your questions, the more people say, "Well, no, I'm not for it." So what you really see is support that's a mile wide but an inch deep, and it's filled with deep ambivalence. If you touch that ambivalence with information instead of rhetoric, then people change their minds.

Q: Do you think being a lawyer's daughter has made you probe and ask questions?

Prejean: Well, my father was a storyteller and he liked to reason things out. From my mother, a nurse, I got a lot of heart.

Q: I'm intrigued by the way your religious vocation amplified their ideals. I mean, in the forties and fifties, your father served people of color when others would not: he defended them for $5 and helped them buy property. Your mother reached out to comfort and heal the sick and dying. As a religious activist, you do all of these things and more--but on a global scale. In fact, the University of Glasgow has just awarded you an honorary doctorate of law for the persuasive facts and clear logic used to argue against the death penalty in your book. Did you ever feel, anytime in your life, that you were moving toward a certain destiny?

Prejean: Everybody is, don't you think? It's interesting, though, Kahlil Gibran has a line that says, "You will laugh all your laughter and cry all your tears." I think we all put our boats out on a current, set our little sails, and when we hit something that impassions us, and our little boat begins to go there, the wind whistles through our hair, and we know we're onto something.

We struggle against impossible odds at times--like, educating people to abolish the death penalty. People say, "What are you doing? That's impossible." But Gandhi talked about doing what you do because of integrity, not because of success. You become alive as you're doing it, and you begin to develop gifts you just didn't know you had. Jeremiah the prophet said, "I've got this fire burning in my bones. I've got to speak."

I'd probably have just become a good little nun and prayed for people. I don't know that I ever would have put my boat on this current if I hadn't met poor and struggling people where there were terrible injustices going on. Either you get galvanized by something like that and changed, or you become paralyzed and you regress.

Judy Pennington is a freelance writer and former director of a peace and justice group in Baton Rouge.
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Title Annotation:nun, anti-capital punishment author and activist
Author:Pennington, Judy
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Words:4377
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