An interview with Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean

By Victoria Siegel, Special to the Jewish Light

Sister Helen Prejean, author of the best-selling book turned award-winning movie, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” was in town this weekend to attend the Missouri premiere of the opera based on her book. Union Avenue Opera is presenting “Dead Man Walking,” which first premiered in 2000 in San Francisco. Performances continue this weekend at Union Avenue Church, 733 N. Union.

Since witnessing the execution of a man on Louisiana’s death row, Prejean has been a passionate advocate against the death penalty and revamping our courts system. During her stay in St. Louis, she

spoke with the Jewish Light about her book and her work.

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When you first wrote your book, “Dead Man Walking,” what did you want to happen?

I didn’t have many expectations. All I wanted to do was write a true and good story about my experiences. When I came out of that execution chamber where I saw a man electrocuted to death, I threw up. I had never watched anyone being killed in front of my eyes. Most people are not affected by the death penalty and this secret ritual. I was a witness to it and had to tell the story.

Did anything ever happen to you personally to draw you to this cause? Did you know someone who was wrongly convicted and subsequently executed?

No. When I moved into the poor communities of African Americans in the inner city projects someone from the prison coalition asked me to be a pen pal to a prisoner on death row. When you witness the direct killing of a human being like that I couldn’t walk away from it. I then began working with victims’ families and helping them deal with their grief. We started a group in New Orleans called Survive, a victims’ advocacy group. We stay with families and let them express their grief. Seventy percent of families who lose a child end up divorced.

How do you reconcile with families of murder victims their desire for revenge and the death penalty?

I sit with them and respect where they are. I do not push my views on them. I let them express their grief and if I can be of help, I help.

Are there any circumstances under which the death penalty is justified?

No. We can never trust government to do that. Even the Supreme Court said we’re supposed to reserve the death penalty for the “worst of the worst.” Who’s the arbiter of deciding this? The attorneys always have their laundry list of what’s considered the worst of the worst.

What are prisons supposed to do?

Just like we’re beginning to learn to recycle and take care of earth, we need to learn to recycle human beings. We know that when they’re educated in prison, recidivism is cut dramatically. But government keeps cutting programs.

For those who have brain damage, like fetal alcohol syndrome, and who can’t be rehabilitated then they need to be put in a special place. But we need to move away from “you made us suffer so now you have to suffer.”

But in the Bible, an “eye for an eye” is viewed in Judaism as the punishment should fit the crime.

That view has developed. As in Exodus, you want restrained justice.

It has come to mean over the years of reflection that if I destroy the eye of another person either by malice or accident, then it is as if I have destroyed my own eye and I do what I can to heal that person. We need restorative justice; we need healing.

What are your thoughts about for-profit prisons and overcrowding?

2.3 million people are incarcerated in this country; two-thirds of which are non-violent offenders, mostly in there for drugs. In Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” she points out that the majority of drug users in this country is white. But 70 percent of people incarcerated for drugs are black.

We need alternative sentencing for drug crimes. We need to educate people in prison. We don’t have any halfway houses for people who get out of prison; they don’t have any transition from nothing to the real world.

Drugs as a crime have been politicized. People running for office appeal to their constituents with a “tough on crime” stance. The media fuels this fear of crime, which just feeds the fear. Politicians run for office and fuel that fear. The death penalty is just the apex of that “tough on crime” iceberg.

In the last 30 years, California has built 27 prisons and one university. That’s happening across the country. We are warehousing and throwing away human beings.

How does the opera differ from the movie or book?

In the movie, you’re waiting to find out if he did or didn’t do it. In the opera, in the prologue everyone witnesses the murder, everyone sees him, and everyone doesn’t like him. Then it takes you to the victim’s family and they’re told they can witness the execution and get closure. Then it takes you to the murderer to take responsibility for what he did. And he has a mother and siblings. Then it takes you to the guards who have to kill him. It brings you to both sides of the issue, like all good art should do, which is what I tried to do in the book.

We need to throw light on these subjects. We need to bring people to a new consciousness and then we can change policies.