From her world-famous book Dead Man Walking to a life spent educating the public about the inhumanity of the death penalty, the work of activist nun Sister Helen Prejean is known around the globe. What is less widely known is the story of how Sister Helen came to do this work and, as the description for her latest memoir River of Fire notes, how she evolved in her “spiritual journey from praying for God to solve the world’s problems to engaging full-tilt in working to transform societal injustices.” In this special conversation for Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Sister Helen about River of Fire and about the deep historical roots of the racist, colonialist violence that is embodied today in America’s prison-industrial complex.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling The Bars. We are fortunate today to be joined by the foremost expert on abolishing the death penalty, the author of Dead Man Walking, which was turned into a movie, and now she has produced the latest book about her ride toward consciousness. So joining me today is Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Helen, thanks for joining me.
Sister Helen Prejean: Glad to be here.
Eddie Conway: Okay. So we want to start off by just finding out how your life was before you moved into the Black community. Give us a brief overview if you will.
Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah. Eddie, it was a perfect picture of white privilege. Grew up white Catholic family, French descent in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ’40s, ’50s. Jim Crow in full swing. Had a couple, my daddy, a successful lawyer in Baton Rouge. A couple, Ellen and Jesse, never knew their last names, worked in the house, lived back in the servant’s quarters. A kind mother and father who actually helped Ellen and Jesse buy a house. Daddy helped Jesse get a job, but that was charity and that was kindness, but not working to change systemic injustice. Not awake about Jim Crow. And to me, looking at that, it was a perfect example of what culture does. Culture gives us eyes, gives us ears. Honey, it’s better for the races to be separate, never questioned it. And my whole book River Of Fire is about awakening to justice and getting out of my little white bubble in the suburbs and moving into the St. Thomas housing projects.
And that awakening had to do with a deep spiritual awakening that the gospel of Jesus was not just about being charitable to people who happened to be around us, but getting involved with the struggling and [marginalized] and suffering people of our day. So when I moved into the St. Thomas housing project, it was like I had moved to another country. I mean, I had everything to learn. I had an open heart, but I had everything to learn, and wonderful African American people who became my teachers, teaching me about racism and linguistic racism. For example, looking in the dictionary, white’s always pure, always good. Black, black ball, blacklist. Teaching me. And I saw the suffering just a 16th of a mile from where I lived it was like another… People didn’t have healthcare. People are dying. One man had a heart attack because he didn’t have health insurance, an ambulance wouldn’t come pick him up.
The kids are graduating out of high school, public high school and they can’t read a third grade reader. Violence everywhere, drugs everywhere. Police grabbing people, witnessed this with my own eyes, throwing them in the back of a police car. And they’re yelling to the nuns on a porch, sister, y’all are my witnesses. I got no drugs on me. And seeing everything from another point of view, and my heart catching fire for justice. And then one day coming out of that adult learning center that we had. And it was the one thing I could do. Black people had been my servants all my life. It’s a chance for me to serve so I could be a teacher and I could help people get their GED.
And coming out of that adult learning center, it was a simple invitation. Hey Sister Helen, you want to be a penpal to somebody on death row? All I was learning about it, all the injustices. I said, sure, I could write some letters. I thought I was only going to be writing letters. And it ended up I witnessed the electrocution of a man in Louisiana’s killing chamber, and came out of that experience and been on fire ever since. I noticed that it was almost a secret ritual, people thought it was fine. And so my mission was born. I had to get out, had to tell the story to wake people up, and that’s what led me to write Dead Man Walking.
Eddie Conway: Okay. You mentioned culture being responsible for this. Do you mean when you say culture the same thing as socialization?
Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah.
Eddie Conway: Is there a difference?
Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah. Socialization, of course they might be synonymous. Socialization is what makes us see, well here’s what it means to be a nice, good human being. With everything around us, people’s attitudes, the way people act, what people accept as white people. Well, it’s okay if Black people sit in the back of the bus. It’s okay if they don’t have their rights, it doesn’t affect us. We’re kind to the Black individuals we know. Socialization maybe is a good word for it, Eddie, because it’s what you see all around you, and it leads you not to question things, see. It’s the minute when you begin to question, which is what I loved about the ’60s in the United States. We really began to question things. And what’s happening now with George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Confederate statues coming down. We can see there’s a shift of consciousness going on. Once you start asking questions, hey, wait a minute. Why is this? Then things can begin to change. So socialization would do it, I think.
Eddie Conway: Okay. I want to step back in history when you talk about culture, and maybe you can comment on this. When you go back to the first European invaders to the North American continents, the first thing you see is violence, warfare, and enslavement of the Indigenous population.
Sister Helen Prejean: Right.
Eddie Conway: So that culture goes back, and I want to go back even farther than that to the – And you are an exception in my mind – To the holy Roman Catholic Church and the vision of the world of people of color among the European powers. It seems to me that this culture goes back to, and I don’t want to be crude and say it goes back to the caveman, but I don’t know where. I guess I’m having problems understanding what… You are college educated, maybe university educated. How could you not see the history of this culture and realize that it was divisive and destructive for anybody that wasn’t white?
Sister Helen Prejean: About Indigenous people, look at that, the decimation, killing of Indigenous people. And missionaries came with the conquistadors, you always had the missionaries with. I have been blessed enough to be adopted in a family in a Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana where I got to experience sweat lodge, Sundance, got really steeped to come to understand how Native American people pray and how they experience the world. And the thing, when you were saying to me, you were college educated. How come you didn’t learn this? Really interesting question, because it’s a thing Brian Stevenson says all the time: proximity. Who do you have proximity to? Not what are you studying in the books in academia, but whose lives do you have contact with? What people do you know where they can share their experiences? And that’s what happened when I got to know the Northern Cheyenne people in Montana. They began to tell, I mean, I learned more from one conversation with them and being in that sweat lodge with them, than all the courses I took in college. And learned how this oppression – And here’s the thing.
The Native American people thought it was a joke that these Europeans came over and they planted a little flag with their country on it and said, now this is ours. They knew the earth, mother earth did not belong to anybody. They thought it was really stupid that they were doing this, that whole mindset. We come and conquer you. We take your land and now it’s ours. So that violence has been built in from the beginning. I mean, there was a T-shirt that we all used to love to wear and it showed Native people there fighting terrorism since 1492, because it was terrorism, pure and simple [inaudible]. And it’s a mindset that’s still very present in the US. And the death penalty is an example of the way you solve social problems or get control is you use violence to get what you want. And so it’s been extended. And religion right in there. So religious institutions have a really bad history going back to the crusades, Muslim people, the Moors conquering the holy land. It’s just such a long, long history of religion being tied to violence.
Eddie Conway: Because you are a nun, you took a vow of poverty and you probably don’t own anything. I mean, you live somewhere and you eat.
Sister Helen Prejean: Right.
Eddie Conway: But it’s not like people in poverty in the projects. Most people in the projects want to get out. They don’t want to be in poverty.
Sister Helen Prejean: That’s real hard.
Eddie Conway: What’s the difference? You went into that environment to learn to help people who are trying to come out of that environment. So you talk in your book, River Of Fire, you talk about the nuns that went in 10 years before you, that kind of cleared the pathway and made you accepted by people in the community because of their work. I guess my gut feeling is, the reform work that had to be done only made the conditions more tolerable. Well, I mean, what could be done to really change the conditions of people that’s forced to live in projects?
Sister Helen Prejean: Right. One of the main things, first of all, it is very clear that, as nuns, we were not really poor. It’s the opposite. We came to redefine that. That we’re not poor people at all, but it was the spirit of the first Christian communities that you share all your goods in common with each other and you don’t own anything personally. Okay. And we have done that. But what I was learning about poverty, when I moved into St. Thomas, the big thing poverty does is reduce your choices. And talking to Geraldine Johnson, she could see her boys were changing once they moved in the projects. Experiences they were having with the police being taken under the New Orleans Bridge, threatened with being thrown in the river.
And she said, we can’t move. We can’t move. We don’t have the money. And they’re gentrifying the city. We can’t move. We got to be in here. It’s like we’re on a reservation. So what do you do? What do you do as a middle-class white woman coming into this? You know you want to be of service. And one of the first things I learned was through this great lawyer who represented poor people, Bill Quigley, is you got to learn the law and you got to learn your rights, and then you work for those rights. One of the first public demonstrations I was ever part of where I marched down on the street with the people in St. Thomas of the tenant association was because there were rats in the building, you couldn’t ever get maintenance to fix anything, and they needed lights.
So Bill Quigley is in there with the tenant association. Here’s the law, here are the rights. Now we’re going to march down the street to public housing and demand our rights. I was part of the support for the people. I joined my voices to theirs and I began to learn that Sister Lillian Flavin worked with her. She said, sometimes you have to pray with your body, with your legs. Put your body there. And so it was in solidarity with the people. And you got to raise your voice. You got to say, we’re not taking it anymore in order to get change.
Eddie Conway: Okay, so this whole process led you to oppose the death penalty. And you explained earlier that somebody asked you to write a letter. You wrote that letter. What followed that? How did you end up in the killing chamber?
Sister Helen Prejean: Right. Well, my image of it is almost like tumbling down a laundry chute. I knew nothing about the criminal justice system. Nothing about the courts. I hadn’t even noticed that the Supreme Court had put the death penalty back in 1976. What do I know about the death penalty? You got to know this, Eddie, that when Tim Robbins was working on the film, writing the screenplay of the film of Dead Man Walking of my book, he kept saying with his little laugh, the nun is in over her head. And indeed I was. I knew nothing. I didn’t know the importance of having a lawyer by your side when you went to trial. I didn’t know how race played in the death penalty overwhelmingly when white people are killed. How poverty, when it’s poor people who end up on death row. Knew nothing, but I wrote a letter and I met a human being on death row.
And of course, one of the ways that the death penalty had been sold to people is that these people who are on death row are not just murderers. These are the worst of the worst. Either by the nature of the action they have done or by the nature of their character. They are evil. They are unredeemable. Of course, that whole thing is done to people politically, too. Like our friend Samsa, politically of Black Panthers. These are evil, violent people. They want to destroy democracy and the whole thing. So you make citizens afraid. You demonize people. And so the very first time I went to death row and visited this man, I expected him to be Black. He was white. Of course, what the big crime was, of course, that he had killed white people, but they brought me in a room. They locked me in a room.
They had him in handcuffs, locked him in this little cubicle, had a heavy mesh screen between us. I’ll look through that little mess screen. And I went, my God, he’s a human being. And I mean, I just saw it. I could see it right away, whatever he had done. And I was going to come to grips with that. He is more than the worst thing he’s ever done in his life. No human being can ever be defined as an essence of an action, ever. And I began from that day forward to learn about him and to learn about human rights. And when I went to write Dead Man Walking, Eddie, you never would’ve heard of Dead Man Walking. That never would’ve been a film if I hadn’t had a great editor. I’d never written a book before. I had this great editor at Random House, Jason Epstein. He just died a month ago.
And the way I structured the story of Dead Man Walking, I was so into the human rights of this person who should be executed. And when Jason read the first draft, he said to me, nobody’s going to read your book. And the reason they ain’t going to read it is you wait far too long before you really face the crime this guy did. So all of the people are going to be reading, they’re going to be suspicious of you. She’s a nun, she believes in Jesus, forgive the poor murder and all that. And if within the first 10 pages, if they don’t see the crime that this man, Patrick Sonye, and his brother, Eddie Sonye, in cold blood shot and killed a teenage couple and left their bodies to rot in a sugar cane field, nobody’s going to read your book.
Because the challenge that you have on your hands is you have to take people into the moral outrage people feel when innocent people are killed and feel that moral outrage with them. And then step by step you got to take them into the situation of that killing chamber, where they get as close as possible to witness a human being being taken from a holding cell and strapped down and having 1,900 volts of electricity pumped through his body. Reading, I found out, can be a powerful thing because people are quiet. They’re not debating, they’re using their imaginations and you can come very close to bringing them into where they will never actually get to be a witness.
Eddie Conway: Okay. You look at institutional racism, you look at poverty, you look at the prison-industrial complex, you look at the lack of choices. And just until recently, healthcare and housing conditions and so on, education. You pointed out all those things. What’s your position on reparations for Black people?
Sister Helen Prejean: Absolutely. Reparation. I’ll give you one little example. A woman in our parish at St. Gabe’s, it’s an African American… Well, it’s a Roman Catholic parish, but it’s mostly composed of African Americans, who until the 1970s in New Orleans could not buy property and have a house. So the parishioners that are in St. Gabriel’s parish are mostly made up of those people. And one of the women in it, Sheraline Branch, good friend. She is one of the descendants of the slaves from Georgetown University, the Jesuit university that made this discovery that they had been slave owners. The Jesuits had been slave owners and helped build the university and all that. Well, they are serious about making reparations. The way they’re doing it is they have begun to meet with the families who are the descendants of those slaves and are offering scholarships and education to their children and great, great grandchildren to get an education.
That’s reparations. That’s not just an apology or we’re so sorry we had slaves, but that’s taking concrete steps to make up. And we have a long way to go in this country to acknowledge it. For a long time in the books here that kids were learning at school, they didn’t acknowledge slavery. And I know for a fact that the Texas textbooks didn’t even say that it was slaves they had. They were free workers who came. So we are doing a huge reckoning in this country right now with all the backlash that’s going with the 1619 Project going on and learning about slavery and our role in it. And its repercussions in the penal system.
I mean, and the more you learn, Eddie, even to get property, to buy a property, to get a house, the law of the land was written in there that Black people couldn’t. The law of the land was in there when Black GIs came home after World War II. They couldn’t get the loans to get a mortgage on a house. They couldn’t get the loan to get the GI bill to go to school. All that is built in and inherited generation after generation. Reparations are the only way to go. And so we got to wake up to that fact and we got to start taking concrete steps for that to happen.
Eddie Conway: Okay, great answer.
Sister Helen Prejean: Great question.
Eddie Conway: Yeah. I’m wondering, you talk about Georgetown. You could talk about Brown University, you could talk about any major corporation pretty much because the wealth was accumulated off of the backs of enslaved people. And even though it’s not the same thing, I would include indentured servitude of people also that wanted a new life and sold seven years of their life to get over here. The wealth was accumulated off of those backs. Is there ever going to be any way of education, beyond education, that we can ever catch up? I mean, the house always wins and we are playing by the house rules, and the house is so far ahead.
I just want to back up a minute and just add this one fact. During the Obama years when the economy around 2008, when the economy was in serious crisis, Black people lost 50% of their wealth that had been accumulated from the end of the civil war up until Obama. 50% of the collective wealth of the Black community disappeared because of Wall Street and the stock market and being forced to, well not being forced to, but thinking that you create a retirement fund, and you put your money in stocks and when you get old you’ll have it. Well, it disappeared. Grandma’s house disappeared. So how can we catch up? I mean, education is not going to get it. We need some kind of help. You got any comment on that?
Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah. When you look at the Bible and you see people up against great odds, the house always wins. There’s this prophetic dimension that causes social change, the prophetic dimension. And I turned to one, one of our best known was Martin Luther King. Who thought when they did that boycott of the Montgomery buses that anything could change? They didn’t know if they could carry off that bus boycott for a weekend. Word spread in the community, people walked to work, carpooled, and it lasted for a year. It was an economic boycott, and it was a step. And it has in it, the same dynamics that need to be present today for social change. And you pointed to something that’s been so disastrous, it’s that how do Black families inherit wealth? Everything’s been stacked for the white community and the estate tax and all of that, of inheriting wealth.
Instead, it’s generation after generation knowing nothing but poverty and the welfare system. And so you start now, I mean, David and Goliath is an understatement next to the Black community, but we do have now social media and wherever you have a committed group of people that are going to work for change and begin to raise their voices, we are seeing change. Look at Black Lives Matter. Now nothing’s perfect. And you’re going to have the squabbles among the leadership and all the human things going to come into it. But once you have consciousness in a group of people and they start raising their voices, and then you start putting pressure on political people to make the changes, change happens. And we are in the midst of that now. In a way we’re going to look at it and be, it’s always going to be their struggle, especially in a capitalist society like ours where even prisons are private. Privatized prisons where people are making money off of people suffering and incarcerating other people.
And you mentioned indentured servants. 13th Amendment when slavery was abolished had two exceptions: slaves, except for [the incarcerated] and except for indentured servants. Slavery is abolished, no, except for incarcerated people and indentured servants. So it’s built into the constitution. So we have such a long history, but all we got to do is when we meet people, I learned this at St. Thomas. Here was that Black tenant association standing up, marched down the street and made the public officials pay attention to their needs, and they got change. And that change happens, as you know, incrementally, and every now and then there was a big thing that happened. Obamacare was a big thing. And it’s going to be the thing, I think, that’s going to keep creating waves of change, because people with preexisting conditions realize we are going to lose that without Obamacare, but look at the struggle to get that.
But we got some hopeful signs going on in the Congress, because we got rid of Trump and we got a decent president. It’s not perfect, but at least we got people standing up now and white people beginning to realize. My main job has been to educate the white people of this country about the death penalty. Most of my audiences, I go to universities, talk to civil groups, it’s to educate the white people. It’s white people that got to understand just how endemic it is in the systems. People have good hearts and I’ve found they’re not entrenched. They just need to wake up.
Eddie Conway: Okay. River Of Fire details your ride into consciousness as I pointed out.
Sister Helen Prejean: And I love it. I should have put that as the subtitle of my book.
Eddie Conway: This is the final question, too. What do you think people can get from your book if they get it and read it?
Sister Helen Prejean: Yeah. It’s just one person coming to consciousness and then making a decision and making a change out of it. See, hope Eddie, hope is an active verb. If you’re not participating in some way in change and you’re standing on the banks of the river and just watching everything happen, especially now through the internet, you get all this news pouring over us and all the bad news in the world. If you’re not active, if you are not pulling on that rope with a group of people to work for change, you feel despair.
And maybe my story can just show people, look what happened when one person woke up. And a key factor of my waking up is I moved into another neighborhood where I could be with people who were different from me and who were suffering. It’s hard to manage all that change from your little bubble where you just read books or look at videos, have a little study group, but you’re always with other white people, none of whom are struggling. You got to be in the struggle some kind of way, which means you got to move. You got to make a move. And that’s what I did and maybe people could learn from that.
Eddie Conway: Okay. All right. Good answer. So Sister Helen, thanks for joining me.
Sister Helen Prejean: Eddie, I love being with you. I wish I had you before I put that subtitle of my book and I’d have riding into consciousness. Man, I like that.
Eddie Conway: Yes.
Sister Helen Prejean: Thank you. My visit with you is quite a ride today. Thank you for doing this interview with me.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And thank you for joining us.
Sister Helen Prejean: All right.
Eddie Conway: All right. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.