Episode 131: Sister Helen: Walking with People on Death Row

Sister Helen Prejean, Founder of the Ministry Against the Death Penalty

This week’s episode of the 1 Girl Revolution Podcast features Sister Helen Prejean, founder of the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, advocate, and author of “Dead Man Walking.” Sister Helen may be best known for her bestselling book that was turned into the Oscar Award winning film, “Dead Man Walking”, but Sister Helen is so much more. Sister Helen has dedicated her entire life to being a vocal advocate for the incarcerated population and particularly for those on death row. The Ministry Against the Death Penalty (MADP) fosters creative, reflective and educational programs that awaken hearts and minds, inspire social change, and strengthen our world’s commitment to human rights.

Sister Helen was born on April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1957. After studying in the U.S. and Canada the USA, Sister Helen spent the following years teaching high school, and serving as the Religious Education Director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans and the Formation Director for her religious community. 

In 1982, she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans in order to live and work with the poor. While she was there, Sister Helen was asked if she would be open to corresponding with a man on death row. Sister Helen began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers. Sister Helen walked with Patrick Sonnier until he was put to death in the electric chair – and she was there to witness his execution. In the following months, she became spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie, who would meet the same fate as Sonnier.

After witnessing these executions, Sister Helen realized that this lethal ritual would remain unchallenged unless its secrecy was stripped away, and so she sat down and wrote Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. Dead Man Walking hit the shelves when national support for the death penalty was over 80% and, in Sister Helen’s native Louisiana, closer to 90%. The book ignited a national debate on capital punishment and it inspired an Academy Award winning movie, a play and an opera. Sister Helen also embarked on a speaking tour that continues to this day.Today, although capital punishment is still on the books in 30 states in the U.S., it has fallen into disuse in most of those states. Prosecutors and juries alike are turning away from death sentences, with the death penalty becoming increasingly a geographical freak. Sister Helen continues her work, dividing her time between educating the public, campaigning against the death penalty, counseling individual death row prisoners, and working with murder victims’ family members. Sister Helen’s second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, was published in 2004; and her third book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, in 2019.

Sister Helen Prejean with a man in prison
Sister Helen Prejean with a man in prison

In this episode, you’ll hear:

  • Sister Helen’s life story; 
  • The story of how she decided to become a nun and what her life as a nun has been like;
  • The story of how she was asked to write Patrick Sonnier on death row and how their interactions changed the trajectory of her life;
  • How she got involved in the work she does on death row and why she’s dedicated her life to the incarcerated population – particularly those on death row;
  • Why we should all care and what we can do to learn more about incarceration and those on death row;
  • And so much more.

For more information on Sister Helen and the Ministry Against the Death Penalty, please visit Sister Helen’s website

Follow The If Project on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

Buy Sister Helen’s Best-Selling books here

Watch 1 Girl Revolution’s Emmy-Nominated short film – “The Girl Inside” – today!

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The 1 Girl Revolution Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, YouTube, and everywhere you listen to podcasts.

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