Sr. Prejean takes on prison system

Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, gestures during a book signing after her presentation at Asbury United Methodist Church in Bettendorf March 26.

By Celine Klosterman

BETTENDORF — If we do nothing to help end the death penalty, we’re complicit in its use, said Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ.

The longtime pro-life activist offered about 230 people that call to action March 26, during a delegate assembly for Churches United of the Quad City Area at Asbury United Methodist Church.

Her statement, as she acknowledged, reflected an attitude change since her early years as a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille. As her religious community began to talk more about social justice in the 1970s and ‘80s, “I just didn’t get it.” After all, Jesus had said there’d always be poor people, she’d mused.

But her outlook changed after she attended a 1980 conference in which Sister Marie Augusta Neal spoke on social justice. Sr. Neal noted Jesus preached the Good News to poor people, and that integral to his message was that they’d be poor no longer. “Then I got it,” she said.


Jesus formed a community so radical that women and children were considered people — unusual for first-century Palestine, Sr. Prejean said. Yet the New Orleans resident didn’t even know the marginalized and poor people who lived in her own backyard.

She’d considered herself spiritual, but not political. But Sr. Neal said that even if you do nothing, you’re taking a political stance — upholding the status quo.

So after the conference, Sr. Prejean moved into the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans. There, everyone seemed to know someone in prison. And inmates faced what she considered the prison system’s injustices — mothers being jailed for nonviolent crimes and thus separated from their children, and teenagers being sentenced as adults to life terms. “There’s no chance for redemption … what happened to us?”

Capital punishment is flawed, too, Sr. Prejean said. People on trial for murder are more often sentenced to death when the murder victim was white than when he or she was black, she said. And we can’t define which criminals are “the worst of the worst” — the people whom the U.S. Supreme Court has said the death penalty should be reserved for.

Also, 130 “wrongfully convicted” people have been released from death row thanks to evidence acquired through the Innocence Project, Sr. Prejean said.

Death penalty supporters sometimes quote Exodus 21:23-24, which reads, “But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, eye for eye…” But Sr. Prejean cited Matthew 5:38-39, in which Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.’”

Sr. Prejean got a first-hand look into Louisiana’s capital punishment system after she became a pen pal of inmate Patrick Sonnier, who was convicted of killing two teenagers.

She eventually visited him, expecting to see someone who matched her image of a murderer. But “I looked into his face, and it was so human. It shocked me. It stayed with me forever.”

He’d committed a terrible crime, she acknowledged. His victims’ bodies had been found lying face-down, both shot in the head at close range.

But we’re all worth more than the worst thing we’ve done, Sr. Prejean said.

Even the parents of David LeBlanc, one of Sonnier’s victims, were conflicted about the death penalty, she said. She recalled LeBlanc’s father telling her he didn’t like how pressure to support the death penalty made him feel.

“They killed my son,” she quoted him, referring to Sonnier and his brother Eddie, also involved in the crime. “I’m not going to let them kill me.”

Sr. Prejean later accompanied Patrick Sonnier to his execution in 1984. “My mission was born that night,” she said of the date she watched him die by electrocution. “I knew I had to tell the story.”

She began speaking to crowds with as few as three people. She’s since written two books: “Death of Innocents” and “Dead Man Walking,” which was made into an Oscar-winning movie. She’s founded a victims’ advocacy group, Survive, and received numerous honors including the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, sponsored by the Davenport Diocese and other non-profit groups. 

Sr. Prejean’s March 26 talk “spoke directly to what Christianity is all about – the whole concept of justice,” said Ron Quay, executive director of Churches United. The delegate assembly she spoke at was the best attended assembly in years, he added.

“I think we can recognize this isn’t someone who’s talking academically; she’s been there,” he said of her ministry with prisoners.

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