Sister Helen Prejean was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on April 21, 1939, to an upper-middle-class Catholic family. As a child, Prejean lived in a society deeply divided by race and class. Segregation in the South was nearly universal, and violence against blacks was relatively common. In Dead Man Walking, Prejean recounts her first experience with racial violence, an episode that left her with a permanent mark.
Prejean joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957. She graduated from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans with a B.A. in English and Education in 1962. Although originally she planned a life of quiet religious contemplation, Prejean’s experiences and understanding of Jesus’ teachings gradually called her to a life of social activism. In 1980, Prejean was inspired by a lecture on social justice given by Sister Marie August Neal. Sister Neal stressed Jesus’s idea that the affluent must share what they have with the poor and live as if the struggles of the poor are their own.
One year after attending Neal’s lecture, Prejean moved into the St. Thomas housing projects in New Orleans. There, she saw inner city poverty at its worst: violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, the struggles of the working poor. As she experienced poverty firsthand in St. Thomas, Prejean also became aware of the dramatic shift in the government’s treatment of the impoverished. While Prejean and other social activists worked on behalf of the poor, the federal government made drastic cuts in funding for social services.
In 1982, Prejean began a correspondence with Patrick Sonnier, a man on death row. This correspondence marked the beginning of Prejean’s interest in the capital punishment system, a system she came to believe was cruel and unfair. The execution of Patrick Sonnier permanently altered Prejean. Although at first she thought she could never return to death row, Prejean returned to counsel Robert Willie six months after Sonnier’s execution. She became a full-time advocate for abolishing the death penalty and expanded her work to include assisting victims’ families.
Prejean’s moral and spiritual philosophy is informed both by her faith and by the philosophies of Albert Camus, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement. Prejean often returns to the ideas of individual responsibility and nonviolent action, both of which were essential components of Camus, Gandhi, and King’s philosophies. Prejean criticizes the rampant abuse and discrimination in a criminal justice system that executes poor and minority defendants at a higher rate than middle-class and white defendants. Prejean argues that as an instrument of social policy, the death penalty is not only ineffective but also inefficient. More important even than these considerations, she says, is the moral cost of killing an individual. Prejean never excuses or attempts to minimize the suffering and pain caused by a murder, but she argues that murderers retain their humanity, frail and damaged though that humanity might be.
Prejean has witnessed a total of five executions in Louisiana, two of which she records in Dead Man Walking. Since the publication of Dead Man Walking in 1993, Prejean has become a national figure. Her book, in addition to being a national bestseller, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The 1996 screen adaptation of Dead Man Walking brought Prejean’s work to an even wider audience. The movie was a critical and commercial success, earning four Academy Award nominations. Since the film’s release, Prejean has gone on to receive numerous honorary degrees and awards for her work on behalf of victims’ families and to abolish the death penalty.