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Sister Helen Prejean Calls On Gov. Ducey To Show Compassion, Release Arizona Inmates

Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic sister  who works to abolish the death penalty. She is perhaps best known for writing the book " Dead Man Walking," and for her advocacy efforts on behalf of death row inmates.

As the COVID-19 pandemic puts a spotlight on conditions in the nation’s jails and prisons, KJZZ talked with Sister Helen about the importance of compassion and why she believes elderly, medically vulnerable and  terminally ill inmates should be released from Arizona state prisons.

JENKINS: As a faith leader, what values call you to serve incarcerated people?

PREJEAN: Well the gospels are clear. The way of life that Jesus taught us was always to go out to the vulnerable and those who needed us the most. In fact he said ‘When I was hungry and you gave me to eat. When I was in prison you visited me.’ It is compassion. And it’s the most vulnerable ones that we are called to serve. And we see it in Pope Francis who says that what believers ought to be about is being a field hospital out there near where people are hurting the most. So that’s the thrust of my life.

JENKINS: Can you tell us what you’ve learned in your work about the ability for people to change while they are incarcerated? And that’s despite many people having a lack of rehabilitative resources available to them.

PREJEAN: First of all — just to be put in prison, you know, where you are depersonalized in almost every way, you know, you’re never called by your first name. You’re called as a number. And there are hardly any kind of really strong educational things or ways for you to improve yourself. Plus there’s a mentality among the correctional officers that you’re not to be trusted. So you get a lot of signals, all day, that you’re nothing more than disposable human waste. You’re a non-human being.

And I have seen the most incredible things. I mean I’ve accompanied six human beings to execution. And some of them were truly guilty of terrible crimes. But it is that mystery of the human person, that people are more than the terrible acts of their life. And so you see them with the capacity to be kind to each other. People on death row with somebody in the cell next to them like Manuel Ortiz, a man that I’m accompanying right now, who is teaching a fellow to read, who couldn’t read.

You see acts of kindness. You see people capable of goodness. And it’s such an incredibly wrong metric to just say that we can classify human beings and that they’re incapable of further growth and that they can’t change. It’s such an arrogant decision to make about another human being. And I have never done terrible acts in my life, but I received a lot of love and a lot of support. So I can’t take a lot of credit that I haven’t done anything really terribly evil, because I grew up in such good soil.

And then when you see people, against incredible odds — I know a man in prison, he did an unspeakable act. He killed two people and two children in an act of rage — in an act on drugs. And then you find out about his life — that he was drinking beer when he was six. He grew up in a whore house and was having sex with the women by the time he was 12, and never had a chance. And then I see him in prison now. He has life sentences. He will never ever step foot out, probably, and I see the goodness in him. So every human being is worth more than his or her worst act.

The problem is that we have perceptions in our society, fed a lot with the death penalty and the harsh penal system, where you have a system where people will actually benefit from other people receiving harsh sentences. Now, there’s a legitimate need for people to be in prison, who can harm other people. That’s legitimate. The main purpose of a prison should be to protect society. But it ought to be to reclaim those lives and restore the lives and help people to grow into full human beings.

Most people will get out of prison. So it’s like, we ought to do everything we can to be restoring life and respecting life. And it’s just so arrogant for human beings to take on themselves — to just say to a human being, ‘You are finished as a human being and we will take it on ourselves, take the authority to decide to end your life, and that we’re going to be able to set this up and we’ll do it fairly and we’ll do it in a humane way.’ I mean, it’s impossible for us to do that.

JENKINS: Opinions seem to be changing on how we treat non-violent offenders, things like people who have committed drug offenses, but do you believe it is important to have compassion and empathy for incarcerated people even if they have committed so called “violent” offenses crimes? And what would you say to someone who is struggling coming around on that?

PREJEAN: Yeah. One of the reasons — I learned this about the death penalty, but it applies to people in prison — is that the public has been made to be afraid of prisoners. Somehow prisoners have been classified as human beings that are so different from us, that there’s no way we can make any connection or have any compassion. And so that negative perception — how does it change?

Well you just take me as an example. I knew nothing. I knew nothing about people in prison. And it was not until I visited and I began to know people, as well as knowing the correctional officers — you know, correctional officers, some of them are really sadistic. They really love that authority and they love to lord it over people. But there are a wonderful number of correctional officers that are kind and really want to be fair as well.

What makes us capable of allowing terrible cruelty, is that separation whereby we’re made to perceive that some people are not as human as us. And we don’t have a way to connect with them. So when people are put into prison, they’re behind prison walls, and all we hear is the politicians’ rhetoric about how bad they are, how terrible they are, how they could get out and kill again.

And you just look at the harsh penalties, for example, for drugs — what was said about people that have been put into prison, for years and years and years, because of marijuana, for a non-violent drug offense. We were made to be afraid of them — ‘Well if they did drugs, and they broke the law, then they must be terrible people.’ So we’re coming around on that.

We’re also coming around on compassionate release of people because now you have a geriatric community within prisons. I mean here in Louisiana, our governor released a lot of people.They were elderly. A lot of them were sick. What harm are they going to be in society?

And so, the compassionate part of us is the best part of us. It’s the most human part of us. And so we’re helping each other now to be less afraid because I do think when the public is made to be afraid of something, they can allow a lot of things. But you bring people close to these human realities and most people will be compassionate.

JENKINS: There are two people incarcerated in Arizona state prisons who have been approved for release due to their imminent death: Gayle Larassa and Douglas Fields. Mr. Fields' clemency packet was transmitted to the governor on Dec. 12 and Gayle Larassa’s information was transmitted on Jan 30, yet the governor has still not signed off on either of them. What is your message to Gov.  Ducey regarding these incarcerated people?

PREJEAN: Well, this kind of really absolutizes it, doesn’t it? You know, like when we look at this case of like Douglas Fields who has mesothelioma, and four months to live. And he was up to be released. In fact there was a recommendation — it was only one vote short. Look at the metrics of this. If four people say you can be released, then ‘OK, we’ll release you’ to die, basically, with his family. But he only got three votes, instead of four votes. And it seems the governor, in holding back releasing him, is basing it, somewhat on that. ‘Well, it wasn’t unanimous.’ Just look at the sheer, arbitrary metrics, where you try to apply that to a human being. And the family is brokenhearted. They’re waiting for him. He could spend his last weeks at home.

What would make a governor make him pay that last pound of flesh? ‘No you’re not going to die at home, you’re going to die in prison.’ Now what is it? Is it political pressure? Is it that he doesn’t want to look like he’s soft on these prisoners? You know, the governors have this power — it’s part of the last divine right of kings, of power over life and death. To release or to bind.

I’m hoping that the governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, who has spoken about how he wants to run humane prisons — he wants to do the right thing — that he would have a heart for this. And what if he errs? You want to err on what side? To let a man die in prison and not be with his family? Is that what you want to be known for? Is that the side of the scale you want to come down on? That you exacted the last pound of flesh and let him die in prison?

So we’re talking about a human heart here, in a human person. A governor, who is not going to be, the rest of his life, in with the divine right of kings. He’s going to move out of office and he’s going to face his death too one day. So why not err on the side of compassion?”

JENKINS: What kinds of actions should governors and the directors of departments of corrections be taking right now in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you believe they should be releasing non-violent offenders or people who are vulnerable to contracting the virus?

PREJEAN: Their job, in the department of corrections, their job, as the governor of a state, is to look out for the welfare of all of their people. And so we have a plague. We have an epidemic of people dying. And like we have here too in our federal prison in Oakdale in Louisiana, people are crowded. There’s no way to provide them protection from an epidemic like this. So part of the role of government officials is to provide protection and care for their citizens and that includes people who are incarcerated.

And so we see that it’s really hitting the prisons. I mean can you imagine — to be taken and put in an enclosed room, close with other people, where you have no agency to get out of that door and to leave, and then everyone starts getting infected with this virus, all around you, and all you can is just wait for it to get you and die? I mean that is a form of cruelty.

We have ways that we put on gloves and we don’t touch that human face. We have ways that we protect ourselves from our humanness. Sometimes it’s the desire for political power, or to keep our power, or whatever it is that might motivate us. But the deeply human thing is to have mercy and compassion on each other. But that special job that public officials have is to look out for the welfare of all the people.

JENKINS: What does the Bible say about how we should treat incarcerated people? And are there any scriptures or passages that you’re turning to right now?

PREJEAN: Yeah there are two of them that are my favorites. My absolute favorite is Jesus saying, ‘I’ve come that you may have life to the full.’ A full life. Not just simply living, but really being alive. And really being alive as a human being means that you’re soul has developed into a person of compassion, mercy — love for others in a very wide way. And the other one — especially around the death penalty and these harsh sentences of death and life — from Deuteronomy: ‘I set before you death and life. Choose life, that you may live.’ Because when we are compassionate beings, and when we do justice, and when we’re fair, we ourselves then grow as human beings, and we can thrive, and we can truly be human.

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Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.