St. Joseph of Medaille Sister Helen Prejean is seen in this 2016 file photo. CNS photo/Paul Haring
St. Joseph of Medaille Sister Helen Prejean is seen in this 2016 file photo. CNS photo/Paul Haring
" Being so close [to inmates] and seeing the difference it makes … doesn’t allow you to be passive. It makes every relationship count. " Sister Helen Prejean

St. Joseph of Medaille Sister Helen Prejean visited with The Monitor about her decades of advocacy for death row inmates. Sister Helen, perhaps known best for her book “Dead Man Walking,” has been working for 40 years to abolish capital punishment.

TM: How do you stay strong in your ministry to those on death row?

Sister Helen: “I look at [their] suffering; I see [their] courage in getting on with every day. How can I say, ‘I’m getting tired,’ or ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’? I so see Christ in the suffering in this [death row] society – of course I’ve got to do my work and use my social media voice to end this.”

TM: Can you speak to the increase in federal executions that have taken place?

SH: “I saw the raw power of President Trump killing 13 people [when federal executions resumed in July 2020] because he could. Never mind that there were 17 years with no federal executions. … There is a huge contrast with the states. [The death penalty is legal in 25; New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007.] In New Jersey, 61 murder victims’ families testified, saying, ‘Don’t kill for us.’ Catholics [also] had a big part to play in its abolishment, with clergy and bishops involved.”

TM: In your book “Dead Man Walking,” you talk about being at death row inmates’ executions after getting to know them. The last face they see is yours – a face of love. How do you do that?

SH: “When someone is going to be killed in front of your eyes, going through that torture, their life is being taken away … you want them to see dignity in the face of those watching when they die. That’s Christ. I say to them, ‘Look at me, I will be Christ’s face for you.’”

TM: How has Church teaching – including the new statements by Pope Francis in 2018 in which the Catechism’s teaching on capital punishment was revised – informed and supported your advocacy?

SH: “It confirmed what I’ve been saying and doing. It’s nice to have your Church behind you. … The Church had always said the death penalty was ‘in order to defend society’ and ‘that there are some crimes so great that someone deserves death’ – but that was before prisons and life sentences. We don’t have to kill people to be safe. … In my book “The Death of the Innocents,” I spoke to St. Pope John Paul II and I said, ‘Your Holiness, I meet a lot of Catholics who say they’re pro-life – but only innocent life. They draw a line, saying [prisoners] deserve to die. When you strap a person down and render them defenseless, where is the dignity in that?’”

TM: What do you think is one of the greatest hurdles to overcome in people’s perception of capital punishment?

SH: “My own hurdle: being so outraged at the crimes [toward the victims] … we feel this outrage about how wrong this is, and what are we going to do with that? For the victims’ families – they have said, ‘I can never be satisfied that they [criminals] are alive, and my family member is not.’ Each of us, when we come up against what has been done to innocent people, we have to grapple with that. How can we respond as a society? Will we now judge their crime to be so terrible that the only thing we can do justly is to kill them, with God’s blessing? … The only way out is through – that is what I have been doing: going to churches and cities to help them make that journey, a journey of conversion. First just facing the outrage; we should be outraged over the death of innocent people. But who are we going to put in charge [of deciding criminals’ fate]? What is the worst of the worst crimes? Local prosecutors, to whom ultimate discretion is given, are going for capital punishment less and less, and juries voting for it less and less. … Consciousness is changing, through education of the people, and is waking them up to their own good hearts.”

TM: Support for capital punishment appears to be waning – what do you predict for its future?

SH: “Not ‘appears,’ but ‘actually’ – it is going down. Juries don’t want to be responsible for the life of another human being. A Gallop poll toward the end of 2019 showed that if people were given a choice [to sentence someone to] life in prison without parole or the death penalty for a terrible crime, only 36 percent chose death.”

TM: How has being so close to death helped you to live a fuller life? And how has it affected your relationships with family and friends?

SH: “Being so close [to inmates] and seeing the difference it makes … doesn’t allow you to be passive. It makes every relationship count. I accompany people one by one; I have a privileged place in my heart [for inmates on death row]. In my most recent book, “River of Fire,” I say we have to develop friendships like a garden. We can’t make it without friends and community.”