On death row – interview with Sister Helen Prejean – Interview
Sister Helen Prejean is leading a passionate campaign against the death penalty, asking the hard questions as no one has before. Now, her book about her experiences with inmates on death row has become the basis for the new movie Dead Man Walking. In this interview with the film’s director, Tim Robbins, she shows us why no one can sit out this fundamental debate
Challenging criminologists, government officials, and even the pope himself, Roman Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean’s courageous memoir about her experiences with prisoners on death row, Dead Man Walking [Vintage], shook the moral ground on which the divisive issue of the death penalty has long stood. Now, directing his second feature, actor Tim Robbins has brought Sister Helen’s eloquent argument against capital punishment to the screen in a deeply humanistic new film, also titled Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. As portrayed by Sarandon, who first called the book to Robbins’s attention, Sister Helen is a frank and complex figure, taking her faith out of the cloister and into an ambiguous world. Penn’s performance as death-row inmate Matthew Poncelet refuses to sentimentalize the character. Robbins spoke with Sister Helen at her home in a New Orleans housing project, where she was finishing a new book on the role of women in the church. Here they discuss her life, what she’s doing, and why.
TIM ROBBINS: How did you first come to be a nun?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I joined the sisterhood in the late ’50s, at the end of high school. I had been taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and I liked them. They were warm, human, humorous, and smart. I come from a very Catholic family, and at night I’d hear my mom and dad saying the rosary, praying that somebody in the family would dedicate their life to God, so I got a lot of support on the home front. I very much wanted to be a saint; I wanted to be the best. Then, in 1962, Vatican II [the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XIII and continued under Paul VI until 1965 for the purposes of spiritual renewal of the church and to reconsider its position in the modern world] took place, bringing in all kinds of changes. For one thing, we took off the habit, which had separated us from others. Before that, people were kind of in awe of us. We’d float past them in our long black skirts, but when we took the habit off we became human. That was good, but it was also scary because suddenly we had new freedoms. We began to go among people, as Jesus did. My calling to be on the side of the poor and the marginalized developed out of that. So there are vocations within vocations, and I’ve been different kinds of nuns at different times.
TR: What does your faith mean to you?
SHP: Religion is about loving everyone in the human family. But often it has no voice in the places where social policy is made. It has been pushed out of the public domain. In the past, movies that have been made about nuns either showed us as flakes, or as naive, like children, or a flying nun, or it’s Sister Act, which is just fun. Nobody has presented the depth of a person of faith who uses that faith to make a difference in social issues. There is a great line in this film, Dead Man Walking, in which the father of a murdered boy says to the nun, “I don’t have your faith.” And she replies, “It’s not faith. It’s work.” I love that.
TR: Wouldn’t the church claim that it was always working with poor people, always interested in communities?
SHP: You can trace the church’s history of siding with labor, and its stance that workers have a right to strike, and saying the poor have a right to health care, and so forth. But in the lived experience of the church, its leaders have often been on the side of the rich. Who do they go to lunch with? They go with benefactors, people who have money and power. The social teachings are called the best-kept secret in the Catholic Church.
TR: So the official policy of the church, in the past and even in the present, is different from the actual work of the church.
SHP: Yes, but what I’m saying about the social teachings of the church is that the words have been there, but not the action.
TR: But didn’t the pope recently come out against the death penalty? Isn’t that taking action?
SHP: The pope’s position does not go far enough. It does not say that we can never allow the state to execute anybody. Even though he says that instances where the death penalty is taken should be rare, if not nonexistent, he still accepts the theory that the state could execute human beings. And the challenge I would give back to him is: “Your Holiness, if you would allow circumstances where the state can kill people, then it means you don’t just believe that someone else should do it, you believe that you could carry it out yourself. But can you picture yourself throwing the switch?” I don’t believe he really would, but it is important to translate theory by bringing ideas into the lived experience. Psalm 24 says that to see the face of God, we have to have pure hearts, but we must also have clean hands. I think the position that he’s taken doesn’t leave clean hands. In my opinion, Amnesty International is farther along in that than the pope. They hold that governments are never allowed to kill its citizens.
TR: Are you allowed to disagree with the pope?
SHP: Of course we’re allowed to disagree. Otherwise, the hierarchy would need truth police all over the world.
TR: When was the last time you were personally reprimanded by a church superior?
SHP: I never have been.
SHP: Well, there was this archbishop in New Orleans.
TR: I’ll bet there were some cocktail parties you weren’t invited to.
SHP. [laughs] The archbishop and I got into it here in New Orleans. He supported the death penalty and I wrote about him in my book, but he didn’t reprimand me.
TR: I remember having a conversation with you where I was venting some of my anger and frustration at the nuns that used to hit us as children, and you talked at one point about what you called the “Angry Nun syndrome.” Could you explain that a little more?
SHP: Well, I think celibacy is very tricky. You hear all these things about tunnels between convents and rectories, so that nuns and priests can have sex in secret. That’s not what happens. What celibacy can do to you is shrivel you up inside. To me, the Angry Nun syndrome reveals itself in rules and notes put up around convents that read PUT YOUR DISHES HERE, or PUT YOUR LAUNDRY THERE. This fixation on neatness shows the rigidity that can creep in when vulnerability and openness to love dies. You get these people who can’t bend or cry or get involved with others.
TR: Do you know of nuns who sneak off and have affairs?
SHP: The people I know who have had affairs have left the community. One of the things that came out of Vatican II was the question, “What’s holding you?” As a result, there was greater freedom to leave religious life.
TR: What did you think of the movie we made of your book, Dead Man Walking?
SHP: You definitely caught the tensions and the spirit of the book. Human life is complex, and I think you’ve captured how a person could get sucked into working with death-row inmates. The movie also understands the suffering on the part of the victims’ families and those of the death-row inmates. There is a scene in the movie between Matthew Poncelet [Sean Penn] and his folks, who have come to visit him before his execution. As his little brother walks back and forth across the floor, his shoes squeak. That moment really brought me back to things I remember. Families would fall into silence one minute, then the next they’d be joking and trying to make light talk as they’re saying good-bye for the last time. I also think the film has captured the essence of the debate about the death penalty. Beyond the rhetoric of all the legislators who score their political points for being tough on crime, what it all boils down to is that a handful of people are hired to kill a guy in the middle of the night. This movie shows the process of execution, and I think you were smart to use [the example of] a lethal injection instead of the electric chair, because it raises the question, “Is there a humane way to kill a human being?” Execution is, by design, a secret ritual, and a movie like this can open a door and bring people inside.
TR: Did you have any misgivings about the film?
SHP: My worst fear was that if the movie had been made by someone I didn’t trust, for sure they would’ve thrown in a romantic thing between me and a death-row inmate. Or maybe they’d stick in something sensational, like me slipping a cyanide pill into my bra and bringing it to the death house. But none of my worst fears happened. What’s funny is that I didn’t know who you were or what you looked like, so I rented Bull Durham. A good friend saw it with me and said, “That [baseball] pitcher with the garter belt is going to be the director of this film?”
TR: I was anti-death penalty, but I never had any desire to do a story about the subject until I read your book. It had the courage to talk about finding love for people that are despicable. It also had the courage – you had the courage – to seek out the victims’ parents and start trying to help them. What was it like when you knocked on that first door?
SHP: I’ll tell you, I’m still experiencing the anxiety and pain of the victims’ families. My biggest fear has been that the film would cause them further hurt. I hadn’t gone to see the victims’ parents at all while I was counseling the first death-row inmate I was with, so the first time I met them was at the pardon-board heating. I’ve reflected on my motives for not visiting them sooner, and I think I stayed away partly out of cowardice; I feared rejection and anger. When I eventually went to a victims support meeting and the group talked about how people avoided them, boy, I really understood, because I was one of those people.
TR: Has befriending death-row inmates affected any ideas you may have had of nature versus nurture?
SHP: The question of nature versus nurture is very important. There is definitely a connection between the soil a tree is planted in and what kind of apples it grows. And people who don’t have any hope or belief in the American way of life, because they never had a part in it, tend to [commit] desperate acts. They have nothing to gain by being law-abiding citizens. Also, in this country drugs make up a sub-economy, in which the poor can earn money. As a former inmate I knew said when he got out of prison, the only truly equal-opportunity employers were the drag dealers. But nobody I’ve ever encountered has said, “I was born had and so I had to do this.”
TR: You have probably met inmates who’ve suffered the worst kinds of treatment at the hands of their own families. How does this affect your interactions with a prisoner’s relatives when you meet them?
SHP: I haven’t had that experience. I find that the inmates I have known generally uphold their families, and especially their mothers. Sometimes [the inmates] don’t suffer outright cruelty, but they do experience terrible neglect. There’s an abandonment of people in prison by their families. Sometimes people come, but poverty plays a role in whether visiting is possible. You’ve got to have a car that works, for example. One of the biggest heartaches for someone in prison is that their family doesn’t come to see them, which leads to the feeling that their family has let them go.
TR: When you befriend an inmate on death row, are you trying to bring out repentance in him?
SHP: First of all, when I go to see people on death row, I don’t make an assumption that they’re guilty. I know of too many innocent people who have been found guilty. Secondly, I’m not God, whose part is to bring out those feelings in people. The way I see it, I become a human being with them, and I accompany them through whatever that entails. But it’s not one-sided. They give a lot to me, as well. They help me get in touch with the unknown depths within myself.
TR: Do you try to talk about God, about religion? What message, if any, are you taking to the inmates?
SHP: The basic message is that when somebody gets into a car and drives to see you, it says only one thing: You count. That someone cares means you have dignity and worth as a person, and that no matter what you have done, if you’re guilty or innocent, you have worth as a human being.
TR: I’ve been thinking, recently, about the use of the word human. There’s an Incredible capacity for love and forgiveness, but there is also a drive for revenge and violence. When I was starting to work on this film, I had to come to an understanding with my own capacity for violence. If anyone ever messed with my family, I could kill them, and it is important to accept that potential before you start to form any opinions on this issue. Since I’ve done this project, I’m a lot less likely to pass judgment on someone who has the desire for vengeance.
SHP: I feel the same way. Who wouldn’t feel a desire for revenge if one of their loved ones were killed?
TR: Many people argue that the death penalty Is a significant deterrent [to crime]. Why do you think It is not?
SHP: Just look at the statistics. The states that have the death penalty have roughly double the homicide rate of states that don’t. Look at Canada, where after abolishing the death penalty in 1976, the murder rate began to go down. The key reason that the death penalty is not a deterrent is that the people doing the thinking and the people doing the murdering are two separate groups. when people get involved in violence, they do not sit down beforehand to consider the consequences. As the warden at Angola [State Penitentiary, in Louisiana] told me, “Sister, nobody here even thought they’d get caught.” Generally, when people are on a skid in their life, or are in chaos, they do not think of the long-term consequences of their actions. This is borne out by the fact that more and more violent crimes are being committed by the very young, who tend not to think about the effects of what they do. That’s why the death penalty is not, and cannot be, a deterrent. In the summer of ’87, we executed eight people in eight-and-a-half weeks in Louisiana, and the murder rate in New Orleans went up.
TR: In your book you describe the death penalty as a lottery, saying that of the thousands of homicides each year, only 1 or 2 percent of the criminals convicted of murder actually get death sentences, and then only a fraction of these are executed. It seems, therefore, that in reality the punishment does not necessarily represent the nature of the crime. Does this contradict our notion that only the most evil and unrepentant criminals are condemned to die?
SHP: The rhetoric of the death penalty is that it will be reserved for the most heinous crimes, so we cast a net to get the Ted Bundys and the John Wayne Gacy, Jrs. and so on. True, some of the people who are drawn up into that net have committed terrible crimes on more than one person, but many of the approximately 3,000 inmates on death row right now are from poor backgrounds. Roughly 85 percent of the murderers are there because their victims were white. Many of them have a very limited mental capacity. Some were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And some of them are innocent. So, while superficially, any country that has the death penalty may say that it is reserved for only the worst criminals, a lot depends on what is considered politically the “worst” crime, and that begins with the status of the victim. It’s funny that when some people are killed in our society, nobody seems to notice. Not only does the state not ask for the death penalty, it hardly prosecutes the case at all.
TR: What, for you, is the similar argument against the death penalty?
SHP: It is a profound moral contradiction to give the state the power to kill as a way of showing that murder is wrong. As a moral society, we must have, as firm bedrock, the idea that nobody is permitted to kill. How can we empower a government we barely trust to fill our potholes or collect our taxes with that kind of moral authority? What the death penalty has become is a political symbol that shields politicians from having to deal with the real issue of how to prevent crime, such as providing people with jobs, education, decent housing; in other words, bringing hope into people’s lives so they can invest in our society.
TR: What is the most positive thing that has come out of your work in this field?
SHP: The human beings I have met and what each has taught me; victims’ families who don’t believe in the death penalty; some death-row inmates who have died very bravely, and had the courage to ask forgiveness for what they had done; prison officials who took a courageous stance and quit their jobs because their conscience wouldn’t let them continue. I also value being close-up to the injustices of society, which prevent me from living a comfortable little existence behind an attitude of, “I’ve got it good and I happen to be blessed, so good luck to everybody else.” It’s given me a passion that I don’t think will ever leave me.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group