Sister Helen Prejean’s friend, Chava Colon from the Prison Coalition, asks her if she would be willing to correspond with a death row inmate. He assigns Prejean to Elmo Patrick Sonnier, a man convicted of raping and murdering a young woman and her boyfriend. Sonnier comes from a pleasant, rural Cajun community in Louisiana.
Prejean describes how she came to work and live in the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans in June of 1981. A spiritual enlightenment forced her to recognize that Jesus challenged the affluent to share their resources with the poor. As a result, she began working with the poor.
The residents of St. Thomas, and the working poor of Louisiana in general, endure daily struggles and police brutality. Prejean works with teenage single mothers who are unable to making a living from their minimum wage pay. The Reagan administration slashes funding for social services, while the incarceration rate more than doubles in a decade. Although life is bleak in St. Thomas, Prejean derives hope and inspiration from a young boy working after school to help buy clothes for his sister, and the college graduate creating self-help programs. Prejean, who had a comfortable and loving childhood, says that she doesn’t know how law-abiding she would be if she had been born into a similar life of poverty.
Prejean sends Patrick a letter and three pictures of herself. She tries to imagine what type of man he is, and the suffering of the victims’ family. Patrick writes back saying he would enjoy exchanging letters with her because it’s “just too hard” to be alone on death row. A steady correspondence develops. Patrick describes his cell, in which he spends twenty-three out of every twenty-four hours. He is completely alone. His mother is too old to visit, and his brother Eddie is serving life in the same prison, Angola, for the same crime.
Prejean asks Chava Colon for Patrick’s files. Chava tells Prejean that a week after Patrick’s conviction, the trial judge mailed Patrick the date of his execution, and his court-appointed lawyer quit. Chava says that it is difficult to find lawyers to represent the convicts. Patrick has a new volunteer lawyer from Louisiana.
Prejean reads the newspaper clippings, which describe the happy lives of the victims and details their brutal murder and rape. Patrick and his brother confessed during the trial, although each blamed the other for pulling the trigger. Patrick was sentenced to death, and Eddie was sentenced to life in prison. Eddie recanted his testimony and said he pulled the trigger, but a new jury sentenced Patrick to death once more. The depravity of the crime stuns Prejean.
Prejean describes the history of the electric chair, beginning with its first brutal use in 1890. She includes a doctor’s report that says electric chair victims suffer horribly before dying. Patrick’s victims haunt Prejean, and she feels guilty about befriending their killer. If someone were to kill her own family, she does not know how she would feel, but she is sure she would not want her death avenged by execution. She believes we cannot trust governments to decide who should live and die; she can’t believe in a God who “invests human representatives with such power to torture and kill.”
Patrick’s loneliness and gratitude touch Prejean, and she decides she should visit him.
Sister Helen Prejean’s journey from a life of quiet religious contemplation to one of social activism is motivated by a series of revelations. Prejean illuminates the progression of life-changing decisions that brought her to Patrick Sonnier. She opens her story with a single question and answer, condensed into one sentence: Chava Colon asks her to become a pen-pal to a death-row inmate, and her response is an almost off-handed “sure.” By opening her narrative this way, Prejean highlights how easily the capricious decisions we make can change our lives forever. The simple question and the casual answer lead to a radical transformation in Prejean’s life.
The transformation that begins with Prejean’s decision to correspond with Patrick is just one part of a larger personal and religious transformation that has brought Prejean from a comfortable middle class childhood to a vocation as a nun and a life spent in a poor, violent public housing project in New Orleans. Prejean’s decision to work with Patrick is one step in a series of life-altering moments.
Prejean’s relationship with Patrick and her life in the St. Thomas housing project are intimately connected to her faith. Her decision to fight for social justice is a part of both her new understanding of Catholicism and the changing direction of the Catholic Church. For Prejean, it is no longer enough to believe in God. Faith is not passive, but active, and in order for her to live up to her faith and ideals, she must work and fight for justice. It is a radical and demanding idea, one that calls upon the individual to shoulder responsibility for society’s ills. Prejean’s religious beliefs lie at the center of her narrative, and it is her personal reflections on the challenges, disappointments, guilt, and confusion she faces that make her story so uniquely moving and effective.
In addition to describing her relationship with Patrick, Prejean describes the larger social context of poverty and inequality. The execution of Patrick Sonnier is just one element of the general social injustice that includes police brutality, the abject poverty of the St. Thomas housing projects, the cruel indifference of politicians, and the unfair distribution of government resources. The facts and figures interspersed throughout the narrative are not merely disturbing, but damning. Prejean calls into question the basic fairness of the American judicial system and the social and political context that support it. The state, in its decision to execute Patrick, claims to seek justice, but ours is not a just world.
Two quotes from the French existentialist novelist and philosopher Albert Camus highlight the world’s injustice. According to Camus, a state can kill a man only if the man is absolutely evil, and the state is absolutely good. His other quotation proclaims that the “premeditated crime” of the death penalty is worse than the “pure violence” of the inmate’s crime. As Prejean shows, the state is imperfect and worse. It is itself an instrument of injustice. To a large extent, race determines, not only who is poor and who is rich, but also who will live and who will die. The very means of execution employed by the state—the electric chair—is torturous and violent. Given the failure of government in even minor matters of governance, how can society possibly entrust it to determine fairly and equitably who should live and who should die? For Prejean, the answer is clear. Governments, and therefore the people behind them, are far too fallible to shoulder such an enormous responsibility.