Sister Helen Prejean was born April 21, 1939 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and has lived and worked in Louisiana all her life. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille in 1957. She has taught junior and senior high school students, been Director of Religious Education at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans, and has been Formation Director for her community. In 1981 she worked at the St. Thomas Housing Project with poor inner-city residents and began counseling death row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Sr. Helen has accompanied five men to execution: Elmo Patrick Sonnier (electric chair) Louisiana, 1984. Robert Lee Willie (electric chair) Louisiana, 1984. Willie Celestine (electric chair) Louisiana, 1987. Joseph Lawrence O'Dell III (lethal injection) Virginia, 1997. Dobie Gillis Willams (lethal injection) Louisiana, l999. She also works with murder victims' families and founded a group in New Orleans called Survive. Sr. Helen is an honorary member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. She is the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the U. S. (Random House, 1993. Vintage, 1994), which was on the New York Times best seller list for 31 weeks and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her book was made into a film written and directed by Tim Robbins. Susan Sarandon received a Best Actress Academy Award in 1996 for her portrayal of Sr. Helen in the film. Her book has been translated into twelve languages and has been made into an opera by the San Francisco Opera Company with Terence McNally as librettist and Jake Heggie composer. The world premiere of the opera was performed on October 7, 2000 in San Francisco.
Sister Helen was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, 1998-2001. She has received many awards including the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University, the Champion of Liberty Award from the U.S. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Sanctity of Life Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She travels internationally, but especially in the U.S., telling stories and educating people about the death penalty. She is the honorary chairperson of Hands Off Cain, an international group based in Rome, a member of Amnesty International and the U.S. National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, where she served as board member for ten years. She is the honorary chairperson of Moratorium 2000, a group gathering signatures for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.