Study Guide

Dead Man Walking Freedom and Confinement

By Sister Helen Prejean

Freedom and Confinement

Prison is torture for him. He hates waiting while guards do the "count." He tells me how every inmate at every minute of the day has to be accounted for. (2.69)

Eddie really hates prison—and you can see why. Being under constant surveillance is painful and robs you of your dignity. It's not the death penalty, but it's miserable. Of course, Eddie committed a terrible crime, so perhaps he should be miserable—but isn't that the kind of logic of revenge that the book tries to reject? Do you think Eddie would be miserable, anyway? Would his conscience finally catch up with him?

"He is no longer a man but a thing waiting to be handled by the executioners..." (2.82)

This is a quote from philosopher Albert Camus. He's arguing that the death penalty turns a person into a thing or an object. Taking away freedom to live is the same as taking away a person's humanity; if you're not alive, you're just a brick or a clod. Freedom is part of the definition of being human—which again raises the question of whether prison might not be robbing people of humanity, too.

Their minds, what happens to their minds, I wonder, all day long, all night long, just watching other people. (4.17)

One of the problems with prison, which Prejean points out, is that it's not just prisoners who are inside it. Guards are in there, too. They haven't done anything wrong, but there they are, trapped, not even, as Prejean points out, able to use the phone. Jailing people means jailing yourself. On top of that, Prejean suggests that robbing others of their humanity means robbing yourself of your own humanity. What does it mean for a society to condone this?

"Warden," he asks," can I ask one favor? Can Sister Helen touch my arm?" (4.213)

Prejean and Pat have never touched, so one of his last requests is to have her take his arm. Again, to take away someone's freedom is to take away their humanity, in this case denying them even human contact.

I see a stack of disciplinary report on Eddie. Pat must have requested these. Or maybe Eddie sent them on his own. (5.28)

Pat got Eddie's disciplinary reports. It's sort of sweet—he cares about his brother and is trying to watch over him. It's also depressing, though, in that the disciplinary reports become the only bit of Eddie he's got. It's as if Eddie has been turned into nothing more than his disciplinary reports: he's a bureaucratic problem to solve rather than a human being. Confinement turns him into paperwork.

Such measured retribution is attained, I believe, by sentencing which requires nonnegotiable long-term imprisonment for first-degree murder… (7.10)

Prejean is arguing for long sentences for violent crimes, without parole. Does this mean that a murderer should still be in jail if he's 80 or 90? And is life imprisonment really substantially better than a death sentence in terms of preserving human dignity? And what about the way in which mandatory sentencing has resulted in a ballooning prison population? Prejean doesn't really address these questions; if you want to learn about them, you need to look elsewhere. (You could try Christian Parenti's Lockdown America for a start.)

…all that stands between Robert Lee Willie and the electric chair is the Pardon Board and the governor.

I can hear the words San Quentin guards used to yell when a death-row inmate was let out of his cell: "Dead Man Walking." (7.101-102)

There's the title, folks. It's interesting that "Dead Man Walking" is called out when the convict comes out of the cell. It seems like a way of emphasizing that the cell isn't the thing trapping him; it's death. You can be walking around and skipping through daisies, but if your life is the state's to take, then you're not really free.

I say that an execution is a brutal and a horrible thing, and that I heard Mr. Harvey say Robert experienced no pain, but that the pain came every time he looked at his watch, knowing that in a few days, a few hours he would die. (10.22)

The knowledge of your impending death, Prejean suggests, is a kind of torture and a kind of trap. Knowledge ends up being a prison. You can see the bars up there in the future, cutting you off from time.

Vernon begins to cry. He just can't get over Faith's death, he says. It happened six years ago but for him it's like yesterday, and I realize that now, with Robert Willie dead, he doesn't have an object for his rage. He's been deprived of that too. (11.20)

Robert in many ways sentenced Vernon to a life of grief and despair when he killed Faith. That's why the death penalty is in some sense just: Robert ruined not just one life but multiple lives; he torments Vernon even after death. Prejean sort of suggests that Vernon might be better off if he could still hate Robert, but it's hard to know if that's true or not. Once you've killed someone, there's no repairing it—which is actually one of Prejean's argument against the death penalty itself.

Lloyd had frequently taken her to visit David's grave. Unless he took her there, he once told me, "she couldn't carry on, she couldn't pick up the day, she couldn't live." For three years his wife had cried, and he said the house was like a tomb and he found himself working long hours out of the house "to keep my sanity." (11.145)

The death of David LeBlanc imprisons his parents, Eula and Lloyd. Murder obviously ends a life, but it also restricts the lives of everyone it touches, from the victim's families to the murderer himself. So, basically, don't kill anybody, Shmoopers. That's the moral here.