Sister Prejean Discusses Social Justice and Death Penalty as Common Read Speaker

By Caitlin Burns | October 11, 2018

“People need to know,” said Sister Helen Prejean. “Most people have never thought about the death penalty, because it doesn’t touch their daily lives. Together, we need to change it.”

Sister Helen, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, addressed the Arcadia community in an interactive conversation about the dehumanization of death row inmates as the University’s 2018 Common Read speaker on Oct. 10. Hundreds gathered in the Kuch Center Alumni Gym to hear about Sister Helen’s experience revolutionizing the Catholic Church’s views on the death penalty and her work advocating for the human rights of those on death row. Selected as the Arcadia’s Common Read for its still current discussions on human rights and social justice, Dead Man Walking celebrated its 25th anniversary of publication this year.

“It’s a great time to be awake so that we can be active and change what needs to be,” said Sister Helen. “As I wrote Dead Man Walking, it helped me deal with all my emotion. Wherever we pick up the road of justice, one thing leads to another and we meet a community working for justice. I’m still feeling the effect of it.”

Conducted in an interview style, the event was moderated by Dr. John Noakes, associate professor and chair of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, and provided an opportunity for students to ask questions about Sister Prejean’s experiences and book.

“It showed the flaws of our criminal justice system,” said Chemistry student Jayson Cortes ’22. “I was on the fence before I read the book. It pushed me to see it was wrong. Like she said in the book and discussion: ‘Should a person’s worst act define them?’”

Criminal Justice alumnus Stephen Leslie ’14 had similar sentiments, and questioned how society standardizes murder.

“Not only is it inhumane, but you are lowering yourself to the worst standards of society,” said Leslie.

Answering student questions, Sister Helen addressed how to get involved and encouraged students to seek out local and state organizations to be part of the change. She suggested students work with organizations like Witness to Innocence and Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Common Read is an annual event that bridges classroom discussion and lecture series, enabling first-year students to read the selected work and then engage with the author or book subject. Previous Common Read speakers include Nicole Maines, subject of Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, actor Alan Cumming, author of Not My Father’s Son, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, author of My Beloved World.

Common Read is part of the University’s Inauguration Week, from Oct. 8 to 13. The ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 13 is the culmination of events celebrating the inauguration theme, “Reimagining Our Higher Education Community: From Inclusion to Justice.”