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Religion in Prison: “Dead Man Walking” by Prejean Report

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Introduction

Dead Man Walking details Helen Prejean’s role as a spiritual counselor to a number of death row inmates in Louisiana (Prejean 1). Through the writing, the author illustrated the injustices surrounding the death penalty. In the year 1982, Prejean met death row inmates by the names Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Robert Willie, and Eddie Sonnier. After associating with the inmates, Prejean noted that there were numerous injustices waged against the capital offenders in prisons. She initiated several programs to sensitize society about the need to abolish the death penalty. Similarly, she educated the death row inmates on how to cope with agony and death. The topics illustrated below focus on Prejean’s story.

The Catholic Church’s position on capital punishment

For centuries, capital punishment has been considered a controversial issue among Catholic followers (Doubleday 6). There have been discords of opposing voices trying to address the issue based on the church’s current teachings. In the discussions below, the catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2265, CCC2266, and CC2267) is highlighted.

CCC 2265 asserts that a valid defense can not only be a correction but also a critical responsibility for an individual accountable for the existence of other individuals (Doubleday 6). The above statement implies that collective defense necessitates that an undue attacker is made incapable to cause damage. Owing to this case, those who legally have the right also have the authority to use weapons to deter attackers against confronting the public members.

CCC2266 states that the initiatives of the government to control the spread of conduct detrimental to individual’s privileges and to the fundamental rules of civil society are in accordance with the prerequisite of protecting the common good (Doubleday 6). As such, the valid civic authority has the mandate and the responsibility to impose a penalty proportional to the seriousness of the wrongdoing. Similarly, the penalty has the key aim of restoring the complaint presented by the wrongdoing. After the offender willingly agrees to the wrongdoing, the penalty assumes the worth of compensation. Based on the above illustrations, the penalty safeguards public order and adds to the correction of the offender.

On the other hand, CCC2267 asserts that resuming that the offender’s character and accountability have been entirely determined, the old-fashioned philosophy of the Catholics do not eliminate alternative to the death penalty (Doubleday 6). The above holds when the alternative is the only conceivable means of safeguarding public lives against undue attackers. Nevertheless, when non-lethal approaches are adequate to protect the public’s safety from the attackers, the government should limit its powers to such approaches.

Why is the Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in the Furman v? Is the Georgia case important in the story?

Furman v. Georgia Case was heard in the US Supreme Court in the year 1972 (Doubleday 123). During the judgment, the judge ruled on the prerequisite for a gradation of constancy in the use of the death penalty. The court ruling resulted in the freeze in a capital penalty in the US, which later ended during the ruling of Gregg v. Georgia Case in the year 1976. The Supreme Court’s ruling required the United States’ government and the Congress to reconsider their decrees meant for capital crimes to guarantee that the death penalty would not be issued in an unpredictable or prejudiced method.

Following the ruling, thirty-seven states ratified fresh death penalty decrees with the aim of addressing the court’s concerns with respect to uninformed issuance of the death penalty. A number of decrees overseeing diverged hearings, with distinct guilt-innocence and condemning stages, and commanding principles to monitor the preference of adjudicators in issuing capital sentences were supported in sequences of Supreme Court verdicts in the year 1976 (Doubleday 123).

Furman v. Georgia Case is important in the story because it sought to address a contentious issue that had caused heated debates between the state and the main character illustrated in the book. Prejean, the main character, believed that the death penalty should be abolished because God alone has the right to take away lives. She does her best to ensure that the penalty is abolished in the US. Through this, she organized numerous campaigns to educate the public about the importance of abolishing the decree. Therefore, the above court ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutionally upheld by Prejean.

The role of a spiritual advisor in prison

Based on Prejean’s story, it is apparent that spiritual advisors play huge roles in prison. Through Tom Dybdahl and Chava Colon’s assistance, Prejean was able to offer consolation to Patrick and other death row inmates (Prejean 12). After exchanging several letters with the inmates, Prejean was able to know about the prisoners’ situations. When she met with the inmates, she sympathized with them and urged them that they should never die without giving their lives to Christ. In the book, Prejean and Millard Farmer tried to persuade Governor Edwin Edwards through court appeals to pardon the prisoner. As a spiritual advisor, Prejean aided the inmate in accepting his crimes.

Based on the above illustrations it can be argued that spiritual advisors offer hope to prisoners. Although Patrick was sure that his life was at a stake, Prejean was able to convince him that there was life after death. Through this, Prejean offered hope and reason to live fully until the day of his demise. In the story, it is illustrated that death row inmates undergo a lot of emotional pain (Prejean 13). Therefore, spiritual advisors should try to counsel the inmates on how to cope with the pain. After Patrick interacted with Prejean, he attained a more optimistic attitude and better quality of life unlike before their contacts (Prejean 23). The above indicates that spiritual advisors in prison have a role of enabling the inmates to enjoy their lives despite the pains and injustices associated with the penitentiaries.

Spiritual advisors can also help inmates to face the death penalty without fear. The events that occurred before Patrick’s death illustrate that he was no longer afraid to die. Before his death, he had admitted to his mistakes before Prejean. After admitting to his mistakes, Prejean acted as an intermediary between the inmate and the victims’ families.

Which of the Seven Key Themes of Catholic Social Teachings parallels Helen Prejean’s dedication to working toward the abolishment of the death penalty?

Catholic social teachings are essential to believers’ conviction. The teachings are attached to the believers’ understanding of mortal life and respect. As such, the teachings have their origins in the Bible, the teachings of Christ, and Catholic clerics’ statements (Doubleday 12). Catholic social teaching requests the believers to work hand in hand in ensuring that an impartial society is attained.

Among the seven key themes of Catholic social teachings, the first teaching parallels Prejean’s dedication to working towards the abolishment of the death penalty. The first theme focuses on the life and self-respect of humanity. In this regard, human life should never be terminated through death penalties. Terminating human life is against a number of religious principles. For instance, a number of Christian denominations, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism oppose the practice. According to Catholic teachings, life is only given and terminated by God.

According to Prejean and death penalty opponents, by permitting the act the courts and the state had illustrated that some lives are less valuable compared with others. According to these opponents, life is a gift of nature and should not be terminated by any individual. Another disadvantage associated with the practice is that if advocated for the courts and states may misuse it. Equally, if the practice is adopted, issues concerning ethics would arise. It would be difficult to establish how ethical the practice can be or who should authorize the practice. Similarly, issues with respect to how the death penalty is undertaken and regulated will arise. With all these concerns, the practice would attract numerous criticisms hence it should not be permitted as the Catholic social teachings assert.

What are some issues that Sister Helen Prejean has seen in both the housing projects and prison that she attributes to injustices of society?

The author thought that as a religious sister, she would live a life span of silent spiritual observation. However, after undergoing spiritual arousal she began to feel how the poor suffered in society. She began her work helping the residents of St. Thomas Housing Project (Prejean 1). In the housing project, she noted that to live as Christ expects she had to experience the struggles the poor were undergoing in their day-to-day lives.

Through the experiences in the housing project, she gained a direct understanding of the everyday issues faced by the poor. In the book, she asserts that she was moved when she met a needy man and his beautiful kid in a soup kitchen (Prejean 16).

During their interactions, Prejean wondered why society had neglected him to the extent that they wanted to toss him away and kill him. In the book, she noted that the experience reminded her of Christ’s teachings that God dwells in individuals that the society had neglected. Equally, the author wondered how a country like the US with a robust economy could have some of its citizens living in abject poverty. A seventeen-year poor girl with little children amazed her (Prejean 9). In general, the suffering of the inhabitants of St. Thomas Housing Project made her appreciate all she had in life.

Similarly, Prejean attributed the pain and suffering of the death row inmates to the injustices of society. Before her experiences with the inmates, the author had no understanding of the suffering of the prisoners. Based on her Christian principles, the death penalty was inappropriate for any capital offender. In her bid to end the death penalty, Prejean appealed with the Governor and the courts of appeal. Her initiative to save Patrick failed because society and the authorities were adamant about amending the decrees. Similarly, through the inmate stories, the author offered an understanding of the bribery and bureaucracy surrounding the death penalty. She attributed the above occurrences to injustices in society.

We are all responsible for our actions regardless of the consequences. What role does personal responsibility/accountability play in the book?

In society, individuals are responsible for their actions regardless of their consequences. Our actions and verdicts guide our lives and shape our expectations. Whether individuals acknowledge it or not, we are all responsible for our actions because they will affect our tomorrow. Based on the above, it is apparent that all actions have consequences. Individuals choose whether to abide by federal and state laws based on their actions’ consequences. The above implies that individual actions lead to individual choices. For instance, if an individual decides to commit an offense he or she will be apprehended and charged before a court of law. The court will determine his or her penalty with regard to the degree of the offense.

In the book, personal responsibilities played a huge role in informing the reader that actions have consequences. Patrick had been sentenced to the death penalty for raping and murdering a child. If the offender had abided by the state laws, he would not have been undergoing the suffering associated with prison. Owing to the fact that the offender committed a capital offense, the judge that presided over his case saw it fit for the offender to be denied his liberty and his life be terminated.

Equally, in the book the author persuaded the offender to own up to his actions (Prejean 159). Through this, the author convinced the offender to admit that he had committed the alleged crimes. In doing so, the author informed the reader that we should be responsible for our actions regardless of the consequences. By persuading Patrick to admit his crimes, the author wanted him to get psychologically prepared to cope up with the consequences of his actions.

Before reading the book, what was your stance on capital punishment? After having read the book, has your position changed? Why or why not?

Before reading the book, I believed that capital offenders were supposed to be punished through the death penalty. Considered that capital offenders have been in and out of prison a number of times, I thought that the only way to end their threat was to put them on death row. Being a supporter of retribution, I assumed that actual justice necessitates persons to suffer for their misconduct. Equally, I supported the notion that wrongdoers should agonize in a manner that is appropriate for their wrongdoing. As such, I presumed that each offender should get what his or her wrongdoing merits. In this regard, I did not see any reason why a murderer or a rapist should be exempted from the death penalty.

I equally supported the death penalty before I read this book because it promotes deterrence. Just as I did, many individuals assume that the death penalty is justified because by terminating the lives of capital offenders, other individuals who could have committed the same capital mistakes will shy off. Before reading the above book, I believed that the death penalty offered a reprieve for the victims’ relatives.

After reading Dead Man Walking, I have changed my position on capital punishment. Based on Prejean’s experiences with death row inmates, I have learned that everyone deserves compassion, hope, and forgiveness regardless of the crime committed they have committed. I have learned that the death penalty does not enhance retribution but rather promotes revenge. Owing to this, I now believe that capital punishment is a morally doubtful idea. The preemptive grief of the offender who may be retained on death row for numerous years adds more sorrow to the penalty.

Similarly, the book has taught me that human life should never be terminated through death penalties. According to Prejean and death penalty opponents, by permitting the act the courts and the state have illustrated that some lives are less valuable compared with others.

What did you like/dislike about the book?

I like the book because of its general story. In the book, the author has noted that the story is based on true experiences. It is interesting to note how the author transforms her lifestyle to get closer to God’s presence. The author thought that as a nun she would live a life span of silent spiritual observation. However, after undergoing spiritual arousal she begins to feel how the poor suffered in society. She begins her work helping the residents of St. Thomas Housing Project.

In the housing project, she notes that to live as Christ expects she had to experience the struggles the poor were undergoing in their day-to-day lives. Later, she interacts with death row inmates with the aim of changing their lives. After associating with the inmates, Prejean noted that there were numerous injustices waged against the capital offenders in prisons. She initiated several programs to sensitize society about the need to abolish the death penalty.

Important names

  1. Sister Helen Prejean: she is the main character in the story. She acts as the inmates’ spiritual advisor.
  2. Chava Colon: he is Prejean’s associate. He is the person who allows Prejean to help the inmates.
  3. E. Patrick Sonnier: he is the major character among the inmates. Prejean helped him cope with the death penalty.
  4. Eddie Sonnier: he is an inmate helped by Prejean together with other inmates.
  5. Robert Willie: he is an inmate helped by Prejean. He is the second death row correspondent. He had been imprisoned for rape and murder.
  6. Faith Hathaway: she is the victim raped by Robert Willie. She is mentioned in the court cases concerning Robert Willie.
  7. Elizabeth Harvey: she is the mother of Hathaway. Together with her husband is opposed the abolition of the death penalty.
  8. Vernon Harvey: he is the stepfather of Hathaway. He his introduced by the main character through the interviews she conducted with him. His fury and sorrow have made him a key leader in the fight against death penalty.
  9. David LeBlanc: The juvenile boy killed by Eddie Sonnier. Court cases revolve around his story.
  10. Lloyd LeBlanc: he is LeBlanc’s father. He rebukes Prejean for supporting the inmates.
  11. C. Paul Phelps: he is the head of the correctional facility. He opposes the abolition of the death penalty.
  12. Major Kendall Cody: he is the person accountable for the death house. In spite of his disapproval to the death penalty, he plays a crucial part leading to the killing of the convicts.
  13. David Vaccaro: he is Willie’s assistant in the slaughter of Hathaway.
  14. Millard Farmer: he is an attorney from Atlanta. He works diligently to save the lives of the inmates.

Works Cited

Doubleday. Compendium, Catechism of the Catholic Church. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006. Print.

Prejean, Helen. Dead man walking. New York: Random House, 1993. Print.

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IvyPanda. "Religion in Prison: “Dead Man Walking” by Prejean." April 4, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/religion-in-prison-dead-man-walking-by-prejean/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Religion in Prison: “Dead Man Walking” by Prejean." April 4, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/religion-in-prison-dead-man-walking-by-prejean/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Religion in Prison: “Dead Man Walking” by Prejean'. 4 April.

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