Speech at 2007 CEDP Convention

The journey continues

By: Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean is an author and activist against the death penalty. She wrote the book Dead Man Walking, which was made into an award-winning movie, as well as The Death of Innocents; she has another book due out this year.  

We are here with heroes. We are here with people who sat in death row cells and were innocent, and didn’t become so embittered and lose their souls and their personalities, but are back out in society. We are here with innocent people.

We are here with families who have loved ones on death row and are standing up for them. And we are blessed enough to be awake in this society where so many are sleeping. We are blessed to be awake. 

This is the new abolitionist movement. The old abolitionist movement was against slavery, and now, it’s to keep the government from killing people, because we know that that killing is the tip of an iceberg. 

All the facts that are coming out about prisons now--2.2 million people in prison, 5 million on probation and parole, and I don’t know how many million in juvenile institutions. One in every thirty-two adults in the United States is in the prison system. One in every three young African American men aged 18 to 29 is in the prison system. 

The death penalty sits on the top of it, but we have these concentration camps all across this country. 

And who is benefiting from those concentration camps? We know that more and more private industry is going into the concentration camps that we call prisons. And meanwhile, the social fabric is being shredded. Meanwhile, you destroy affordable housing in New Orleans. 

All of this is part of the fabric of working for justice in this country, which we are coming to see how everything is connected. We cannot be neutral in the face of injustice. 

When I wrote Dead Man Walking and did the research, I found out that the Justice Department gets more complaints about police brutality in New Orleans than any other city in the United States. We imprison people for longer sentences in Louisiana than any other state. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and Louisiana is at the tip of it. “Long lay the sea of slavery,” as Martin Luther King said in his book. 

Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? How do you declare slaves emancipated in an agriculture society if you don’t give them land? You’re free now? Free to do what? And as you know, most slaves went back to the plantation owners because where were you going to go? You are going to starve. 

You look at the prison system, and you know Jesse Jackson and other people call it legalized slavery, which indeed it is. 

I was shocked when I read the constitution and the amendment that abolished slavery. Do you know that it says, “except those who are incarcerated and those who were indentured servants”? Slavery has not been abolished, because people are in prison, even in the amendment in the Constitution that abolished slavery. I never knew that. 

But when you start getting involved in people’s lives, and you start looking into the law, and you start looking into the constitution because you want to know what our rights are, you realize we are going to need to fight for this. We are going to have to work for this. We are going to have to educate people for this. It doesn’t come to us naturally. 

I think people die young because they are so trivialized. One trivial thing after another. Did you make the payment on our house over there? Did you do this? Did you do that? We are not made to live for trivial things. We are made to live for something big, and justice is big, and helping to change a society is big. 

When I went to live in the St. Thomas housing project, another great gift St. Thomas gave me, besides opening my eyes to see the other America and my suffering brothers and sisters, was I read the life of Dorothy Day. 

She became a Catholic. But for a long time, she didn’t become a Catholic because she only saw wealthy people hanging out in the Catholic Church and going to dinner with the bishop. The only ones she saw involved with the poor were the communists, so she’s hanging out with the communists, and joins the Communist Party, because they were the only ones doing things for the poor. And then she gets involved with the poor in New York, and starts soup kitchens and a newspaper, the Catholic Worker

And here I am living with the people in St. Thomas. And then, when I go with my family, like at Thanksgiving, or when I’m with my friends over in the white suburbs, I try to tell them stories, and they all had these stereotypical pictures of all the people who were in St. Thomas, and they are scared. 

I said to myself, “I have to start telling those people’s stories. I have to put a face on those people, so people can understand what it’s like.” What it’s like to get welfare payments in Louisiana, where you can barely even scrape things together. And it was during the Reagan years, when they were putting people through all of these bureaucratic steps to try to get people off welfare. It was just oppressing people. 

I began to learn how to write--how you write and how you tell a story to show a human face and what happens to people when a mama with a sick child has got to sit for six to eights hours in Charity Hospital until an intern who is learning medicine finally comes. 

And there is that sick and fevered child, sitting there by his mama in that hard waiting room fold-out chair--waiting to be seen by a doctor, as if health care isn’t a right in this country. It is a luxury in this country to people who can afford it, and poor people don’t have health care. So I began to write, I learned to write. 

One of the problems in this country is we don’t feel outrage over the death of everybody. We feel outrage in the way the system works--outrage most often when it is someone of status and someone who looks like us, and most of the criminal justice system is white--the judges, the DA’s, the juries. 

So when white people get killed, the outrage is felt, and ultimate penalties are sought. 

I noticed that when I was at St. Thomas. Kenny Singleton got into an argument right outside his sister’s window. He and a guy were arguing over sunglasses, one guy went up to his apartment, and bang, bang, bang--everybody has guns. Bang, bang, bang, and Kenny Singleton drops down on the sidewalk, his blood on the sidewalk. 

We looked all through the paper to see an account of Kenny Singleton’s death. It wasn’t even in the Times Picayune. But other people, when they were killed, white people, you’d always have a picture. Always the front-page story. I began to notice this. 

I began to meet the victim’s families, and I did one concrete act--one that was so small. We started a murder victims’ survivors support group in New Orleans, and that’s when I learned about race. 

Because it was made up of 40 people, mostly African American women, many of them from our neighborhood in St. Thomas, and all of them had people killed. Shirley Carr had two sons killed within six months, and here we are at the meetings. And there they are, and none of them expected justice from the DA’s office in New Orleans. 

In fact, not only was the death penalty not sought for any of these murders, they never even came to trial. One of the mothers had to watch every day where the young guy who had shot and killed her son was going about his merry way. They didn’t even send investigators out. 

If you don’t care about the life of a person, you don’t care about the death of a person. I learned from them. I learned a lot about how race causes whole, huge problems. And those of us who are white and privileged, we have been cushioned and protected, and we have resources. 

We’re not bad people. It’s just that we have to recognize that we are never going to be walking into a room as a white person, and have somebody look at us funny. They may not like us because of our personality or what we do, but they are never going to look at us funny simply because we are a white person. 

What we have to pray for is that we’re so on fire with this injustice that we can work the rest of our days to change things in America. That’s what we’ve got to pray for. And when we come to conferences like this, and when we are in the presence of other people who are working for justice, we do it because we need to keep the fire lit. 

We need to be on the edge, organizing and acting for justice, and we can’t quit.