Dead Man Walking

by: Sister Helen Prejean

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C. Paul Phelps

As head of the Department of Corrections, C. Paul Phelps embodies the moral ambiguity surrounding the death penalty. He is a decent, compassionate man who does not believe in capital punishment but who readily ignores his personal beliefs in order to do his job. His decency and compassion are what make his acceptance of capital punishment so difficult for Prejean to fathom. At the same time, Prejean acknowledges that the penal system desperately needs men like Phelps. If Phelps adhered to Prejean’s mandates concerning individual responsibility, he would most likely leave his position out of principle. His departure, while serving one moral purpose, would also most likely be a blow to the prison system he has helped reform for the better.

The Death House

The death house to which Patrick and Robert are moved in the days preceding their executions is the first physical step in the path to the electric chair. The death house, with its particular rules and around-the-clock guard watch, is the last residence any of these men will know. A holding pen for the condemned man, it occupies the physical space between life and death. It is the place where the inmate has his last meal and conversation, and where he is strapped to a chair and killed. Its very existence strikes Prejean as absurd. Death is supposed to be unexpected and unknown, but the death house turns it into something quotidian and routine. The death house makes the taking of a life an orchestrated, state-sponsored event.

The Work of Albert Camus

Prejean frequently quotes Albert Camus, whose writings on capital punishment are a philosophical model and source of moral support. Camus, a philosopher, novelist, and playwright, is known for the strong moral perspective that suffuses his work. Like Prejean, Camus believed in the inviolable dignity of the human spirit and considered capital punishment cruel. He also stressed the need for action in the face of injustice and absurdity.