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MY VISITS TO ANGOLA PRISON

6 August 2018 No Comment

MY VISITS TO ANGOLA PRISON
Rabbi Michael Whitman

In 1984, shortly into my first rabbinic position in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, with very little pastoral experience, I received a call from a stranger. There was a prisoner in Angola State Prison, on death row, who requested a visit from a rabbi, would I come? When, years later, I saw the film “Dead Man Walking,” I recognized the walk through the housing project at the beginning, filmed on scene. I took that walk to meet the woman who would become my teacher, mentor, and friend – Sister Helen Prejean.

With very little idea of what I was getting into, but infected by Helen’s enthusiasm and goodness, I soon after drove to Angola – several hours away from New Orleans. Even today I see this scene in my mind’s eye, but have difficulty describing it in words. As I got closer to the prison, the topography changed. From the overabundant fecundity of rural Louisiana, suddenly it was barren. No trees, grass, weeds, vines – only bare tree stumps. I thought then, and I think today: It was hell.

Entering death row is a transformative experience. It is loud, brutal, de-humanizing. When you enter the guest side of the cell and you are locked in waiting for the man you have come to visit, it is easy to imagine that door will never be unlocked. I was traumatized even though I did get to leave. Later, when I saw the film, I recognized those scenes filmed on location, and it brought back for me those feelings of trauma and anxiety.

All along the way, Helen taught me, guided me, and helped me process what was happening.

What impressed me the most about Helen was not just her amazing goodness, and her deep and contagious devotion to helping those with no voice. What impressed me most was her ability to empathize with, minister to, and love people on both sides of the drama – the families of the victims, and the families of the criminals, and even the criminals themselves.

Since that time, I often teach Jewish Law concerning how to understand the Bible’s capital punishment in our modern context. It is a complex and nuanced subject. And, in my opinion, when correctly understood and followed, it is a magnificent balance of mercy and justice.

Every time I teach this, I remember my teacher, Sister Helen Prejean.

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