Helen Prejean was born to a devout Catholic family on April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1962 she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Education at St. Mary's Dominican College in New Orleans. In 1973 she earned a master's degree in religious education from St. Paul's University in Ottawa, Canada. After graduating Prejean taught students in both junior high and high school. She also held the post of religious education director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans.
After becoming a nun with the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, originally a French order, Sister Helen Prejean moved to the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans. She taught children and ministered to the needs of the poor who lived there. Prejean was determined to dedicate her life to the poor, advocating for their rights and for better living conditions.
Becoming a Spiritual Adviser and Abolitionist
In 1982 Chava Colon, who worked with the Prison Coalition, contacted Sister Helen Prejean and asked her if she would become a "pen pal" to Patrick Sonnier, a prisoner on death row in Louisiana's Angola State Prison. Prejean agreed, and during their correspondence Sonnier agreed to Prejean's request to visit him in prison. In one letter Sonnier tells Prejean that he has listed her, not as an ordinary visitor, but as his spiritual adviser. Later in their relationship Prejean convinces Sonnier to let her accompany him to the death chamber. Prejean had never worked with prisoners and knew almost nothing about the Louisiana legal system, but she recognized Sonnier's deep spiritual need, so she agreed to be with him.
Her experiences with Patrick Sonnier opened Prejean's eyes to the injustices of the legal system, especially in terms of who the state decides to execute for their crimes. After Sonnier's execution, Prejean became the spiritual adviser to other death row inmates. She also visited and came to understand the terrible pain of the families of the murdered victims.
Prejean worked with other anti–death penalty activists to create organizations to help prisoners on death row, such as the Moratorium Campaign. She also encouraged victims' families to organize their own support groups, such as Survive.
Author and Activist
Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking in 1993 to describe her experiences with both death row inmates and victims' families. The book became an instant best seller and gave many Americans their first deep understanding of the issues surrounding the death penalty and the flaws in the justice system that often lead to this punishment being applied unjustly. The book made the American Library Association list of Notable Books in 1994.
In 1996 the book was adapted into a film. The popularity of the film brought the issue of the death penalty to the forefront of national debate. It also made Prejean something of a celebrity, and she appeared on numerous television news and documentary shows, such as 60 Minutes (CBS) and Frontline (PBS). She has been interviewed for many national magazines and newspapers. Everywhere she speaks or lectures, Prejean sets out her thoughtful moral arguments against the death penalty.
Prejean served on the board of directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1985 to 1995. She was a member of Amnesty International and the group Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. She has worked tirelessly for the global abolition of the death penalty. In 2000 she and other activists presented a petition to Kofi Annan, then secretary general of the United Nations, containing 2.5 million signatures calling for a global moratorium or period of delay on the death penalty. Her other work includes The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (2005).