Most notable for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean has been a leading advocate to abolish the death penalty for over 30 years and has been instrumental in shaping the Catholic Church’s opposition to state executions.
Sister Helen’s tireless efforts as both a victim’s advocate and counselor to prison inmates, has earned her international acclaim, multiple honorary degrees, and a host of prestigious humanitarian and peace awards.
Helen Prejean was born in 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At age 18 she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille (now known as the Congregation of St. Joseph). She received her BA from St. Mary’s Dominican College, New Orleans, and her MA in Religious Education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada. Prior to a life of advocacy, Sister Helen worked as the Religious Education Director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans, as the Formation Director for her religious community, and as a high school teacher.
Sister Helen began her prison ministry in 1981, while living in the St. Thomas housing projects, shortly after dedicating her life to the poor of New Orleans. During this time she was asked to participate in her Order’s community outreach program by exchanging letters with Patrick Sonnier, who was on death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for brutally killing two teenagers. As Sister Helen corresponded with Sonnier, she began researching the capital punishment system and formed what was to become her compelling argument against legal execution. Upon Sonnier’s request, she became his spiritual advisor in the final months leading to his execution, visiting him many times in prison. At this time Sister Helen was also inspired to found Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, where she counseled murder victims’ family members. In addition, she served as National Chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995.
After witnessing Patrick Sonnier’s execution, as well as serving as a spiritual advisor to other death row inmates, Prejean channeled her insights about the death penalty process into a book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. The book was a 1994 American Library Associates Notable Book. It also remained number one on the New York Times Bestseller List for 31 weeks, earned a Pulitzer Prize, was an international best-seller, and has been translated into 10 languages. Dead Man Walking was adapted as a play, an opera, and a major motion picture. The movie, directed by Tim Robbins, starred Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Sarandon won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Sister Helen. In addition, the movie was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Song, and Best Director.
Since the outstanding popularity of both the book and the movie, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen has been regularly featured in media stories about the death penalty. She has appeared on multiple network broadcast news shows, including 60 Minutes, NBC’s Today Show, ABC World News Tonight, Larry King Live, NPR’s Weekend Edition, and the BBC World Service Radio to include just a few. Sister Helen has also been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and in major US newspapers across the country. She uses her access to mainstream media to educate the public about the realities of capital punishment and create a discourse about state execution.
In 1999, Prejean formed Moratorium 2000, a petition drive that eventually grew into a national education campaign, The Moratorium Campaign. The campaign prompted the founding of a new organization in 2005, Witness to Innocence, which is composed of death row survivors who had been convicted of crimes they did not commit, and fortunately exonerated before their executions. In 2000, Sister Helen, along a board member for Amnesty International and a representative of the St. Egidio Community in Rome, presented Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the U.N., with 2.5 million signatures from people all over the world calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.
Sister Helen’s second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions was published in 2004. In it, Sister Helen details the execution of two men, Dobie Gillis Williams and Joseph O’Dell, who she claims were innocent. She sheds light on systemic flaws in the legal and death penalty process, which she says inevitably lead to people being wrongly convicted and executed.
Sister Helen has witnessed multiple executions, serving as an empathetic figure for convicted criminals on death row and simultaneously devoting much of her time to counseling families of murder victims. She is currently at work on her third book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. Sister Helen resides in New Orleans where she operates the Death Penalty Discourse Network.
Sister Helen has helped spur an international dialogue on compassionate justice. Her message resonates with many people from various political, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds, who advocate for more humane ways of handling conflict and wrong-doing. Her call for us to take an honest and often-times difficult look at how our society handles justice, freedom, and forgiveness is both compelling and admirable. Through her commitment to honest and thoughtful discourse, Sister Helen asks that we interact with each other at a higher moral and spiritual standard – in both our legal system and in our personal lives.