Sitting on a black leather sofa in a third-floor room of the Hammer Museum in Westwood October 17, Sister Helen Prejean was beaming about how just days before, Washington had become the 20th state to abolish the death penalty. 

In a few hours, Prejean would be joined on stage by actor and activist Tim Robbins for a conversation presented by the museum and the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies. Robbins wrote the screenplay for and directed the critically acclaimed 1995 film adaptation of Prejean’s nonfiction bestseller “Dead Man Walking,” published in 1993. 

But in an interview with Angelus News before the event, the 79-year-old Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille was talking about how the Washington Supreme Court decision represented progress since the 1987 Supreme Court decision McCleskey v. Kemp, which considered a scientific study examining the arbitrary and racially biased nature of who received capital punishment, but ultimately rejected it. 

“The U.S. Supreme Court saw the same kind of study but didn’t look at the statistics — the study showing if you’re a person of color, you’re 4 1/2 times as likely to be sentenced to death for the same crime,” she told Angelus News. 

“And they made it so hard. You had to show intent by the prosecutors to go after the death penalty precisely because someone was black, which is impossible to show intent for.

“That’s the difference between the U.S. Supreme Court. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot. The way they interpret law has everything to do with their elite status, their privilege and the way they interpret equal justice under law.” 

“Here’s the thing,” she went on, the smile gone now, but her Louisiana accent growing. 

“You have Pope Francis crystalizing 1,600 years of dialogue about the death penalty. He didn’t out of the blue just declare it was wrong. Because all this time the Church has upheld the right of the state to protect itself, to protect society. Now you have a way of keeping people in prison to protect society.”

Being a spiritual adviser and seeing six executions up close is what transformed Prejean and led her to write “Dead Man Walking.” But it was her editor, Jason Epstein at Random House, who guided her through three revisions to produce a moving story that engrossed thousands of readers.

“And the movie was fantastic ’cause of the dynamic of it,” pointed out Prejean. “Tim’s challenge was to make a bold movie.”

Right about then, a 6-foot-5-inch, 60-year-old man entered the room. He was wearing a black suit and black jersey.

“So, we were just talking about the dynamics of the film and the book,” she said.

“What book, what movie you talking about?

“What film? What you talking about?” she quipped. 

And the woman religious and actor-director — who go back 23 years — broke up looking at each other.

Sister Helen said her friend chose his nun friends carefully, being a lapsed Catholic who liked to bad-mouth his strict, New York City parochial school teacher as a child. That got him chuckling again. “Hey, Mr. Robbins,” she called out. “What was the brave thing you did when you did the film? See, I don’t remember everything.”

“Yeah, but you do have the memory, I don’t. What I’d say?”

“You said something good,” she said quietly. “You want to hear what it was?”

Another chuckle. “Yeah, I do.”

“The studio editors of the firm didn’t want Tim, the director, to show the murders again. They just wanted to stop the movie at the execution,” she said.

Robbins started the Actors’ Gang Prison Project in 2006, bringing acting classes to maximum California prisons and producing improv workshops and performances. Inmates finishing the program have a significantly reduced recidivism rate, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. 

“The death penalty is something that we want to put away and just not think about, and we don’t want to deal with the specifics of it,” Robbins explained during the interview.

“Same goes with we never want to hear that we’re incarcerating people for nonviolent crimes for life. They don’t want to be here because that’s a terrible culture to live with. So I think there’s a direct connection between the stories we tell and the shame of it. I don’t think people really want to confront that story too much.” 

Looking across the coffee table at him again, Prejean nodded. She also “absolutely” agreed with legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s assessment that the long legacy of slavery and Jim Crow continuing not only after the Civil War, but to the present day for African-Americans through incarceration. 

“You get a former slave state — Louisiana. The way the penal system is done, prisoners go on-site to work. Get 2 1/2 cents a mile when you start working on roads. They own you. And when you go back after reconstruction, how are the plantation owners going to have workers? Suddenly they lost all their slaves. But then you had all these freed black people. So they pick you up on loitering, send you to jail,” she said. 

“You do your time in jail, and you’re ready to leave. And they say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a bill here for lodging, for food.’ And then they send you to a work camp, and you’re never heard from again. So you extend the legacy of slavery. And when you do leave prison, you lose all your civil rights.”

Robbins agreed with that assessment.

“You have to recognize the connection with slavery. And private prisons are the worst. It’s a nightmare. You have no incentive inside to change. And they have no incentive to treat you like human beings.”

People on the outside have to know what’s going on inside American prisons today, according to the nun and the Oscar-winning actor; how arbitrary the death penalty can be in the 30 states where it’s still legal; and how America still locks up more of its citizens than any other country. 

“Change starts with the people on the ground; it’s the lawyers who come in an represent people,” said Prejean. “You know, it’s educating the people. Then it bubbles up to our leaders. And that’s what Tim and I are doing tonight.”

Robbins nodded.

“You know, what it’s all gonna depend on? How many people we can wake to go into prisons to see what’s needed to change,” Prejean went on. “That’s the role of the Church, too. To get out like Pope Francis is saying to Catholics, get out of the building. It’s not always just talking doctrine. Because it’s a gospel of encounter.

“He says the Church should be a ‘field hospital’ where people are hurting.” And her voice dropped to a whisper. “Boy, if you want to go to a place where people are hurting, and their families are hurting, it’s in a prison.”  


SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus the practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!