NEW YORK — In back-to-back homilies this week, Pope Francis prayed for prisoners and those facing unjust sentences — something Sister Helen Prejean has spent her life spotlighting, no more so than in light of the COVID-19 pandemic where the prison population is more vulnerable than ever.
At age 80, Prejean remains one of the world’s leading crusaders against the death penalty. Her bestselling 1993 memoir turned film Dead Man Walking chronicling her experience accompanying a death row inmate to execution has kept her in high demand over the past three decades. She’s since traversed every corner of the country and globe, testifying before legislatures, visiting prisoners in jail, and on the speaking circuit advocating for the abolition of the death penalty.
Now, due to restrictions on travel and social engagements, she finds herself back at home in Louisiana — but she insists she’s not staying silent or pressing pause on her work.
“I’m sitting here looking out at the flowers on my patio,” she told Crux last week, acknowledging that while she’s enjoying a slower pace, she admits it’s a bit strange.
“It took something very big to get me to stay at home,” Prejean continued. “I have to be out there on the road to wake up people”
Reflecting on the current state of affairs — where individuals are advised to “social distance” in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus — Prejean says she finds it all kind of ironic.
While she believes social distancing is necessary for the sake of the common good, she says “the original social distancing” is how America has long treated its prison population as that of “the other,” unworthy of attention or concern.
She says that as a nation, “we have lost the ability to see other people and treat them the way we want to be treated ourselves” — and in particular, she’s pointing fingers at a policies in the 1980’s and 1990’s that reasoned that in order to be tough on crime, “we had to demand incarceration.”
“The political currency in that is that people got elected to office on the backs and lives of millions of incarcerated,” said Prejean, noting that America’s prison population of 2.3 million people now can be dubbed “the fourth city,” meaning it would make up the fourth most populous city in the country.
Now, with the prison population at a heightened risk for infection and many lacking access to adequate healthcare, she says more than ever “we have to think like Jesus” to understand what the situation demands of anyone who believes every human being has equal dignity.
“Those words of Jesus that ‘I was in prison and you came to me,’ means that we have the capacity to overcome literal social distancing in which incarceration has happened because we can look at people who are imprisoned and say ‘those are terrible people who broke the law, throw them away, put them in prison and throw away the key.’”
“When we demean them, we do not see their humanness, and that’s a form of social distancing that made empathy and compassion impossible and allowed for our mass incarceration,” says Prejean.
“Now,” she continued, “the invitation is to get past the boundaries that we have set up.”
For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Prejean says that “anybody who cares about prisoners as fellow human beings going through suffering” must now “bombard” local officials and tell them they must act now.
As states from New York to California consider compassionate release programs for elderly and sick populations in prison, Prejean is encouraging anyone of good will to reach out to governors and attorney generals to “put pressure on them to please do something.”
For federal prisons, she says the best point of contact is the U.S. attorney general who can grant compassionate release and for state prisons, it’s up to individual governors to decide if they want to grant clemency.
While Prejean is hoping that Catholic bishops will join Pope Francis in speaking out about prisoners who risk being overlooked in the current crisis, she says it’s up to all of the people of God to care.
“When you look for leadership, look to the people,” said Prejean. “Leadership comes up from the ground. The way the Gospel works is that the Holy Spirit is with the people, he moves the people.”
Although Prejean may be sidelined from her busy travel schedule, she says she’s still spending her days on the phone and she’s even now learning how to use Zoom in order to participate in video conference — all in an effort to provide a voice, a megaphone really, to the voiceless.
“As long as this is in place,” she says, “we must continue this witness.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212