The remainder of the spring lineup of the NYS Writers Institute has been postponed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Sister Helen Prejean

death penalty activist and nun

Monday, March 23, 2020
7:30 p.m. - Conversation/Q&A at Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., University at Albany Downtown Campus. See map
Free and open to the public.
NOTE: An informal craft talk will take place earlier that same day at 4:15 p.m. in the Standish Room, Science Library, University at Albany, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany NY 12222. See map. Both events free and open to the public.

Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun and a preeminent advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Her bestselling book about ministering to death row inmates, Dead Man Walking (1993), was adapted as a 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon (as Sister Helen) and Sean Penn.


A member of the Congregation of St. Joseph based in New Orleans, Prejean has previously served as chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Her new memoir, River of Fire (2019), recounts her spiritual journey from praying for God to solve the world’s problems to engaging full-tilt in working to address societal injustices.


In 1982, she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans in order to live and work with the poor. While there, Sister Helen began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers. Two years later, when Patrick Sonnier was put to death in the electric chair, Sister Helen was there to witness his execution. In the following months, she became spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie, who was to meet the same fate as Sonnier.

After witnessing these executions, Sister Helen realized that this lethal ritual would remain unchallenged unless its secrecy was stripped away, and in 1994 she wrote Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. At that time, national support for the death penalty was over 80% and, in Sister Helen’s native Louisiana, closer to 90%. The book ignited a national debate on capital punishment and it inspired the Academy Award-winning movie, a play and an opera. Sister Helen also embarked on a speaking tour that continues to this day.


On Twitter at

Cosponsored by UAlbany’s School of Criminal Justice.


Photo by Scott Lang   

NYS Writers Institute

Science Library 320

University at Albany

1400 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12222

(518) 442-5620

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