Sr. Helen Prejean has been ministering to prison inmates for the past quarter century. She says while many of these people have committed horrific crimes, they too are made in the image of God and deserve dignity. Photo courtesy of Sr. Helen Prejean

Sr. Prejean believes in dignity for all

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • April 16, 2016

WINDSOR, ONT. – Sr. Helen Prejean said ministering to inmates on death row, and prisoners in general, is something that takes effort and persistence, but it is mutually beneficial to her in her call as a religious sister.

Prejean began ministering to inmates 25 years ago. As a privileged middle class young southern woman, she said she was oblivious to the conditions many of those who end up in prisons come from.

Even when she became a nun she didn’t understand the social connection to spirituality.

“I didn’t get the social justice thing because I thought that smacked more of being a sociologist than being a Catholic nun,” she said.

She came to understand that “it’s not God’s will for them to be poor and they have a right to struggle for what is rightfully theirs.”

The Louisiana nun, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, which was turned into the acclaimed film Dead Man Walking, said she always tells people wishing to work in prison ministry that they first need to break the bureaucratic barriers of the penal system to get behind the physical walls and meet with inmates.

“By and large prisons are institutions that like to stay smoothly running in their groove and for religious groups or people who want to come in it is not always easy,” she said. “You’ve got to learn the rules and you have to go through obstacles a lot of times to get in.”

Prejean, based in New Orleans and a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, said the first step should be to check with your diocese to see if such a ministry exists.
“If there’s not one it’s going to be very hard for you as a lone individual,” she said.

But it’s still possible.

“Individuals can go and get on the visitor list of individual inmates,” she said.

Often prisoners reciprocate because they are isolated and have few or no people on the outside interested in their cases or even themselves as individuals.
“First of all it happens through letters,” Prejean said. “And just realize how alone people are. It’s to be able to connect to people because they have no one.”

She said half of the 5,000 prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary “have never received a visitor or one postcard or letter — they are abandoned.”

The next step to ministry is to establish trust with an inmate.

“This is through the steady stream of letters — not just a flash in the pan and then you don’t write for months — but the steady encounter and companionship through letters.”

Once establishing a relationship you must cement that trust.

“I say I’m coming to the prison no matter what the weather is like. They can rely on that visit, it’s steady like a rope lifeline in their life, and they know they can call me if some emergency happens.”

Prejean first lived among poor African-Americans in a New Orleans housing project.

“I knew I was there to sit at their feet and to learn and then to be of service where I could,” she said.

It was here she heard of Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a convicted killer of two teenagers who was on death row awaiting execution.

Prejean said she didn’t realize how extensive her contact with Sonnier would eventually become, ministering to him right up to his death.

“I didn’t realize that by writing the letter I might be with someone who is actually executed.”

Her ministry to Sonnier and another death row inmate largely formed the basis of her book. The book was turned into a film starring Sean Penn, who played an inmate based in part on Sonnier. Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for her portrayal of Prejean.

Prejean says service goes two ways.

“Service became the faithful visiting and going to see and accompanying that man,” she said. “But the great reverence of grace was that he was also helping me, I saw what courage means.”

Prejean, who earned a M.A. in Religious Education from Saint Paul University in Ottawa, said she understands that some of these people have committed horrible crimes. Nevertheless, “this person too is made in the image of God — do we believe only in the dignity of innocent life, what about guilty life?” Prejean said this “is the cusp of the challenge right now with Catholics to expand our meaning of pro-life.”

Prejean’s ministry, Survive, has grown so that there are many individuals in it who take part in prison visits. She gets hundreds of letters from inmates and their families around the country. She also works with families of murder victims.

Prejean recently worked with Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip, whose execution was stayed for a third time last fall over questions surrounding the state’s botched official lethal drug cocktail.

Her ministry has become national, even international, in scope. She served on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1985–1995, as chair from 1993–1995. She’s a member of Amnesty International and honorary member of Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation. And she’s currently Honorary Chairperson of Moratorium Campaign, a group gathering signatures for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.

(Stang is a freelance writer in Windsor, Ont.)

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