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Common Read Author Speaks To Campus

Photo+Credit%3A+Madeline+Ciak
Photo Credit: Madeline Ciak

Photo Credit: Madeline Ciak

Photo Credit: Madeline Ciak

Madeline Ciak

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What started with a letter to a death row inmate sparked several national debates about abolishing the death penalty, but the fact that a Catholic nun spearheaded this movement is what made Sister Helen Prejean’s life story all the more interesting.

Sr. Prejean visited UM-Flint during the Common Read kickoff that highlighted her novel “Dead Man Walking” Thursday, Oct. 8.

During her visit, she shared how she became a pen pal and spiritual advisor to death row inmate Patrick Sonnier. Sonnier was serving his sentence at Angola Prison for the murder of two teenagers and faced being executed by the electric chair.

“Being his pen pal changed my life,” said Prejean.

Prejean also added that serving as a spiritual advisor provided her with more insight to how the criminal justice system works, especially when the people accused of crimes come from poverty.

“If a person comes from poverty and commits a serious crime, there is a greater likelihood that they will be executed,” said Prejean.

Serving as a spiritual advisor to Robert Lee Willie, who was also executed by the electric chair and actually witnessing his execution is what drove her to write her novel on the subject. She realized that the executions would be overlooked if she didn’t write about them.

“I wanted to take my readers into the jail and behind the bars with me; I wanted them to be able to imagine the clank of the prison doors. There are no soft sounds in prison,” said Prejean.

Prejean also explained that it wasn’t easy to get the death row inmates to open up about their lives of crime.

“The relationship formed with the inmates had an unshakeable foundation of trust, but most of the time, the inmates were just happy to have someone to talk to in person because people rarely ever visited them,” said Prejean.

Prejean also said she believes she has learned the greatest life lesson from working with death row inmates.

“I learned that people can’t be written off and that they can’t be considered as disposable waste, no matter if they are death row inmates or not. Life is the greatest treasure,” said Prejean.

Prejean has been a spiritual advisor for four more men and is currently advising Manuel Ortiz, who she said she believes is innocent of the crime he committed and has been on death row at Angola for more than 20 years. She is also currently working on another novel titled “River of Fire.”

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