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Jim Kenyon: ‘Dead Man Walking’ author bringing passion for justice to Hartford Dismas House

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    Sister Helen Prejean, famous for the book "Dead Man Walking" about her work with death-row inmates, greets students and signs books after speaking at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., in Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Mark Humphrey—AP

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/15/2021 9:45:42 PM
Modified: 6/15/2021 9:45:47 PM

Just before her best-seller Dead Man Walking came out in 1993, Sister Helen Prejean was asked about why she put her time and energy into helping death row inmates whose horrific crimes often made them less-than-sympathetic characters.

“People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives,” Prejean told The New York Times Magazine.

Prejean, one of the country’s best-known death penalty opponents and “maybe its most famous nun” the Times wrote in 2019, has made a lot of powerful statements over the years about abolishing capital punishment.

“The death penalty is a poor person’s issue,” she tweeted in 2018. “In the end, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country. You’ll never find a rich person on death row.”

On Sunday, Prejean will be the featured speaker at a virtual event to benefit Hartford Dismas House, the nonprofit that offers men and women just out of prison an affordable and supportive place to live while they piece their lives back together.

The event starts at 5:30 p.m. Ticket information can be found at dismasofvt.org/hartford-dismas. Registration closes Saturday at noon.

With ticket prices starting at $25, I’m confident that people will get their money’s worth. When I talked with her by phone last week, Prejean told me that she’ll be reaching into her “bags of stories” on Sunday.

Prejean, who turned 82 in April, doesn’t rely on notes in her addresses. She just says what’s on her mind. “There’s nothing like telling people a good story,” she said.

Her life story is an attention-grabber to begin with. At 18, Prejean — the daughter of a lawyer and a nurse in Baton Rouge, La. — joined the Sisters of St. Joseph, a Catholic congregation of women that dates back to 17th-century France.

In 1982, after studying in Canada and teaching high school students, she moved into a New Orleans housing project to live and work with the poor. At the request of someone who worked at a prisoner rights organization, she began writing to Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to death for the killing of two Louisiana teenagers.

Prejean became Sonnier’s spiritual adviser and closest friend, frequently driving 2½ hours to visit him on death row. She fought to get Sonnier’s sentence reduced to life in prison.

“I realize that I cannot stand by silently as my government executes its citizens,” she once said. “If I do not speak out and resist, I am an accomplice.”

In 1984, Prejean watched from the witness room of the death chamber at the Louisiana State Prison as Sonnier was strapped to the state’s electric chair.

After befriending another death row inmate and witnessing his execution, Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking, in which she argued the government “can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.”

In 1995, the book was made into a movie, starring Susan Sarandon, whose portrayal of Prejean earned her an Oscar for best actress.

In some respects, Prejean’s work in criminal justice reform was just beginning at that point. She lobbied — if you can call it that — two popes to get the Catholic Church to formally oppose capital punishment, which finally happened in 2018.

“I changed from being a nun who only prayed for the suffering world to a woman with my sleeves rolled up, living my prayer,” Prejean said on the website for the organization she runs called Ministry Against the Death Penalty. (www.sisterhelen.org)

Prejean is not afraid to take unpopular stances. In 2015, she testified on behalf of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the convicted bomber of the Boston Marathon, after meeting with him five times at his lawyers’ request. “I presented him as a human being,” she said afterward.

(Attorneys for Tsarnaev, now 27, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court that he be allowed to spend the rest of his life in federal prison, but the Biden administration still wants his death by legal injection sentence imposed.)

How Prejean ended up helping out Dismas House is a story in itself. In 1983, Rita McCaffrey, of Rutland, and her husband, Francis, a Vermont judge, visited the first Dismas House in Nashville, Tenn. (Francis McCaffrey died in 2018 at age 82.)

In 1986, Dismas of Vermont was established with its first so-called transitional house for recently released offenders opening in Burlington. Since then, three more houses have opened, including the 10-bed Hartford Dismas in Hartford Village.

Along the way, Rita McCaffrey, now 84, and Prejean crossed paths. I think it’s fair to say that they became quick friends and admirers of each other’s work on behalf of people whom much of society has written off.

“We have so few things in this country set up to help people coming out of prison,” Prejean said during our phone conversation. “Dismas is one of those organizations that believes in helping them.”

Along with offering people leaving prison a place to live (room and board is $85 a week) and help with finding jobs, Dismas gives its residents a sense of community, Prejean said. “They can sit down at a table and share a meal,” she said. “That’s not an experience (common) in prison.”

Prejean was scheduled to be the featured speaker at Hartford Dismas House’s 2020 fundraiser before the coronavirus pandemic curtailed traveling. (Previously, she had raised money for Dismas homes in Burlington and Rutland.)

The pandemic hasn’t slowed her down much. Since March 2020, Prejean has done about 150 virtual conversations from her living room in New Orleans.

A while back, McCaffrey asked Prejean if she’d be available to do a virtual session to benefit Hartford Dismas. “Rita calls and I give it top priority,” Prejean told me. “Her heart is in helping people who have been demonized by society.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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