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Sister Helen Prejean in Oregon

Catholic nun, death penalty foe and restorative justice advocate Sister Helen Prejean has returned to Oregon for the fifth time. While in Oregon she visited the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem to teach a creative writing workshop through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings college and incarcerated students together in university courses held in correctional facilities, and visited the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for women in Wilsonville. Sister Helen Prejean will speak on “Envisioning a Compassionate America” on Oct. 25 at the UO.

Restorative justice acknowledges that a wrong has been done when a crime is committed but aims to bring the community together instead of simply locking the perpetrator away. Prejean, who spoke with EW in 2010, says that part of restoring offenders is looking at their lives and what led to the transgression: factors like drugs, education or a dysfunctional family with abuse. Then she says those who are going to be released need to learn conflict resolution along with everyday skills such as budget management, how to have a job and how to relate to people so they can learn to be a contributing member of a community. 

Johanna Luttrell, who accompanied Prejean on her visit to the penitentiary, says the UO is launching a a new multidisciplinary program in restorative justice.

Prejean is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Dead Man Walking, about her experiences as spiritual advisor to death row inmates, which later went on to become a major motion picture. An opera based on Dead Man Walking will have its Northwest premiere at the Hult Center Eugene on March 15, 2013. Tickets go on sale Oct. 26.

Prejean’s second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, tells the story of the nun accompanying two possibly innocent men to their executions. The book examines the death penalty system and how its flaws can lead to the execution of the innocent. 

In Oregon, the death penalty has been on hold after Gov. John Kitzhaber said there would be no executions while he is governor. Death row inmate Gary Haugen has contested that reprieve, saying he wants to die. The Oregon Supreme Court will decide if a death row inmate can refuse the governor’s reprieve.

Sister Helen Prejean’s talk will be at 7 pm Thursday, Oct. 25, in the UO’s Erb Memorial Union Ballroom; free.