Skip over navigation

Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

Chapter 3

Summary

Prejean decides to visit death row as Patrick’s spiritual advisor. She visits with the Catholic chaplain of the prison, who tells her that the men inside are the “scum of the earth” and that she should not let herself be conned by them.

Angola prison is on the site of a former plantation that was named for the country from which most of the slaves came. As Prejean arrives at Angola, she sees a row of predominately black prisoners carrying hoes on their way out to the field. They are surrounded by armed guards. Angola has a long history of abuse, including locking prisoners in a cellblock later converted into a dog kennel.

In September, the prison grants Prejean permission to become Patrick’s spiritual advisor and visit him. Prejean describes the inside of death row: the gates closing behind her, the heavy mesh screen that separates visitors and inmates, and the stark isolation. She tries to make sense of what it means for the government of the United States to kill its citizens.

Patrick enters the room rattling his chains and joking with the guard. He has a handsome face, kinder than the one Prejean saw in the photograph. Patrick gives her a gift: a picture frame made out of cigarette packages. He has clean, shapely hands and is eager to please. He talks about his ex-wife, Helen, and his eleven-year-old daughter, Star. He and his brother Eddie grew up poor. Their father wasn’t around much; he died of cancer when Patrick was eleven. As children, Patrick and Eddie hunted rabbits for food. After eighth grade, Patrick dropped out of school and began working as a truck driver; later he moved on to oil rigs. By the time she has to leave, Prejean has a terrible headache and is grateful to be out of the prison. She notes that Patrick never once discussed his crime. She realizes that she should have reached out to the victims’ families, not just to Patrick.

Prejean continues to write and visit Patrick every month. Patrick, unlike his brother Eddie, has no disciplinary write-ups. In March of 1983, Prejean visits Eddie for the first time. He is a nervous, “tortured man” who lives in lock-down. Eddie tells Prejean about prison life, saying he prefers lock-down to being with the general population. In July, Patrick learns that his new execution date has been set for August 19, 1983. She begins to visit him every week. One day, the guards weigh and measure Patrick so they will be prepared if he resists on his execution day.

The day before his scheduled execution, Patrick waits to be moved to the death house. He has lost weight and is unable to sleep. Prejean tells Patrick that his attorney has filed a petition asking for a stay of execution. Another lawyer working on Patrick’s behalf, Tom Dybdahl, says he is ninety-five percent sure they will get one. Prejean tells Patrick that if he dies, she wants to be there with him so that he can see at least one loving face. He says he wishes he knew if his death would be swift or drawn out.

Prejean asks Patrick if he believes God has forgiven him, and he says he believes he has. He describes what happened on the night of the murders. Eddie was distraught over a girl and shot the two kids in a rage. Patrick says he will go to his grave feeling “bad” about what happened. He says he confessed to the murders out of fear and to confuse the authorities.

A stay of execution is granted pending Patrick’s appeal. During Prejean’s next visit to Patrick and Eddie, Eddie confesses that he was the one who pulled the trigger. He says during the trial, he was confused about what to say. The court denies Patrick’s appeal. Prejean decides to contact Millard Farmer, a well-known death row attorney in Atlanta.

Analysis

After she describes visiting Patrick and entering Angola prison, Prejean begins to highlight two distinct and opposing themes. She contrasts Patrick’s essential humanity, which remains intact despite the brutality of his crime, with the inhuman conditions of the prison system.

In its plantation days, Angola was a place where people were enslaved and treated as something less than human. As Prejean pulls into the prison, she sees black prisoners surrounded by armed guards on horseback, an image that could have come from the early nineteenth century. The penal system, like the institution of slavery before it, dehumanizes and devalues those trapped in it. Prejean’s descriptions of Angola, and her summation of its brutal history, reveal the institutional legacy of brutality and violence upon which the American prison system rests. Society has progressed, but the prison system has remained entrenched in an antiquated, cruel past.

Prejean uses her first encounter with Patrick to paint a vivid portrait of a man who, despite his crime, remains human. Prejean temporarily hands over the narrative to Patrick, who fills the two hours of their visit with stories, memories, and reflections. In this chapter, she allows his voice to come through as if he were speaking directly to the reader. Still, Prejean makes sure that Patrick’s crime never recedes too far into the background. He is responsible for the murder of two teenagers, and those murders are a part of him. While Prejean looks at his hands, she remembers that those hands once may have taken two lives.

As the narrative progresses, Prejean further explores Patrick’s humanity in order to show just how traumatic the prospect of death is for him. He feels genuine remorse, but the state isn’t interested in what he feels. As Patrick’s execution date draws closer, the last-minute appeals and petitions grow desperate. A life hangs in the balance, and Prejean never loses sight of the enormous stakes. She likens the petition and appeal process to a surgery, or the birth of a baby. Just as a life hangs in the balance during surgery, Patrick’s life is suspended while the judge decides upon his fate. A new life can be granted, or a life can be lost. The state’s perspective on Patrick’s execution, however, is radically different than Prejean’s. As Camus said, the man waiting to die can’t act on his own behalf. He has no agency, and circumstances force him into passivity. For the state, the condemned man is not even human.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us