Dead Man Walking (book)

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Louisiana State Penitentiary, the setting of the work

Dead Man Walking (1993) is a work of non-fiction by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and one of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille. An account based on her work as a spiritual adviser to two convicted murderers on Death Row, the book is set at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. It examines moral issues related to the death penalty.[1]


Prejean has become a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Her campaign began in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1982, through a correspondence she maintained with two convicted murderers. The first was Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was sentenced to death by electric chair. She visited Sonnier in prison and agreed to be his spiritual adviser in the months leading up to his death. The second was Robert Lee Willie, for whom she also served as spiritual adviser.

The experience gave Prejean greater insight into the process involved in executions and the minds of convicted murderers. She became convinced the death penalty was morally wrong and began speaking out against capital punishment. At the same time, she founded Survive, an organization devoted to providing counseling to the families of victims of violence.


The title of the book comes from a phrase once traditional in American prisons, to designate a man condemned to death. Prior to the 1960s, when guards would lead a condemned man down the prison hallway, they would call out, "Dead man walking! Dead man walking here!" The origin of the phrase is debated. It may have been to warn other staff or prisoners, to let them know they should be on their guard since a death row prisoner has nothing to lose and could be violent. It may also have been a kind of honorific declamation, to let other prisoners know that they should move out of the way - death row prisoners being seen as an elite within the prison system. Alternatively, the call may have been a stigma attached to the condemned man, to remind others within earshot not to touch him in order not to catch his bad luck. In any case, its symbolism is clear: the condemned prisoner, in the eyes of the law, was dead already.



In 1995, a film based on the book was made, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.


The book was adapted as an opera of the same name, composed by Jake Heggie with a libretto by playwright Terrence McNally. It premiered at the San Francisco Opera in October 2000. The international premiere of the opera was in August 2003, in Adelaide.

Stage version of the book/film[edit]


  1. ^ Schaller, Linda. "The Producer's Journey." PBS. Retrieved on September 1, 2010.

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