Roman Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean opened the first convocation of the term by highlighting her role as spiritual advisor to death row inmates. Prejan, who views the experience as an inspiring force to work towards abolishing the death penalty, reaches out to reject the use of violence against violence in America’s system of capital punishment.
She described the emergence of her role as a “journey of three different levels;” dealing with social justice, the road of a white privileged girl, and of faith. She said that her recognition of the part she would play in this journey had to do with a spiritual awakening – that discovering her passion was simply “when we fully wake up. And right now all of us are still awakening.” For Prejean, this realization involved “leaving the nun world to be engaged with social justice”, where she worked hard to advance methods of non-violence to resolve issues. She drew upon the means of resistance employed by Rosa Parks back in 1955 as “the first example of a comprehensive moment of social change that was non-violent” in the United States, and lamented how it seems deeply engrained within the American mentality that “to solve problems, we have to send in a Marine, drop bombs, or deploy drones – to fight fire with fire.” Prejean then noted how the death penalty seems part of such a mentality; that many consider it the only effective solution to social problems. For her, the journey in dealing with social justice remains extremely challenging because of this incredibly stable, yet in her mind intrinsically flawed, mode of thinking.
In terms of race and privilege, Prejean emphasized that there is a way “we can live in the United States without actually seeing things.” She drew upon her own experience of growing up in suburban New Orleans and yet never familiarizing with the inner city and its acute social issues, such as illiteracy. As a “privileged white girl”, she highlighted that such a background was actually an impediment to her awareness of such problems, and that only “when we put ourselves in the field of energy – when we actually go out there to meet the people” can this ignorance and neglect be overcome. Prejean, therefore, used this to account for how most of the population in the United States is comfortable with the existence of the death penalty; that the execution of even innocent people will be responded to with the admittance that the legal system is imperfect. In addition, she noted that the Supreme Court purports how the death penalty “was reserved for the worst of the worst” offenses, but that such a hyperbolic category has been difficult to define. This has in turn lead to misjudgment of certain criminals and the severity of their offenses; that “a mentally ill inmate should be institutionalized, not incarcerated and facing the death penalty.”
Prejean described the most difficult aspect of being a spiritual advisor as finding resolve and peace with the victim’s family. She highlighted how they have developed the idea that “anything less than the death penalty is not justice”, and that a dangerous subtext exists: that if one is not for the death penalty, then one “is not honoring or loving your child, or husband, or wife, or brother” who was killed. She viewed this outlook as being very detrimental, for seeing the family of victims throwing themselves into the “cycle of vengeance” and opting to kill the inmate in an act of hate would not solve anything. Prejean stressed the power of forgiveness, and thus the huge commitment of faith required to truly see the abolishment of the death penalty as a way for the legal system to move on. As a witness to these executions herself, Prejean viewed herself in a position to show what was happening, to illustrate the dynamic between the inmate and the families and how the death penalty was not the correct solution. She concluded that she “had a responsibility, which was to tell the story. We do what we do out of integrity, not to see what fruits there are of it, and mine was to tell that story.”
Prejean is the author of two books, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions and Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. She is currently working on a third, entitled River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.