“When you awaken to injustice you have to resist it,” is the belief that motivates Sister Helen Prejean as she fights for the abolition of the death penalty in America. Prejean, the author of the book Dead Man Walking, spoke to an audience of more than 500 students and community members at Brookdale last month as part of The Big Read, an initiative sponsored by the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange), to inspire citizens to read and discuss the book, A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gains.
Prejean awakened to this social injustice because of her choice to “live out the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ.” She noted that he was always forgiving and on the side of individuals who were marginalized and had no voice in a society, and she wanted to follow his example. After witnessing the sentenced killing of a death row inmate who was also her pen-pal, she knew she had to protest the death penalty system. According to Prejean, “Ninety eight percent of the people who receive the death penalty are poor, have no access to a good lawyer, and will most likely lose their case. Unfortunately, many people who face this extreme punishment are also innocent.”
According to Article III of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human beings have the right to life, liberty and security of person; and Article V states that no one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Prejean said. She explained that lawmakers persuade society to believe that death is a necessary solution for people who break these laws because they are evil and violent. “Prisoners are caged in their jail cells and then taken out and killed. This is dehumanization because society has been brainwashed into thinking that the death penalty is not about vengeance but protection, so the killing cycle doesn’t stop,” she said. Although this act, according to Prejean, is intended to give closure or bring about healing for the victim and/or their families, but, she asked, “can death really fully heal a human heart that has suffered a loss?”
Prejean recounted the story of David Lebon, a young man from Louisiana, who was senselessly killed. Prejean had an opportunity to sit with the victim’s father, and asked him how he felt about wanting the killer dead. Mr. Lebon stated, “At first I wanted him dead, but I didn’t like how it felt to go to a place of hate. He killed my son but he won’t kill me.”
During the question and answer session, a former prison warden Al Gray asked Prejean if she has had the opportunity to address law enforcement leaders and politicians who still support the death penalty. Prejean replied, “There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in reaching officials and making change. The death penalty sentence is diminishing throughout the states, but it cannot go fast enough.”
Prejean continues to promote her message that the death penalty is simply another way to perpetuate inequality, and hopes to persuade her audiences to “undertake the roots of violence” instead of seeking revenge. She states, “We are worth more than the worst act of our lives, no matter what we have done.”
For more information on The Big Read and Chhange, visit www.chhange.org or call 732-224-2074.