Since 1976, Mother Antonia, now 78 years old, has lived in a cell at La Mesa in Tijuana, one of Mexico's most notorious prisons, caring for the inmates. What's even more remarkable is her background and the comfortable life she left behind for a life of service.
She was born Mary Clarke and grew up as a striking blond beauty amid movie stars and money in 1930s Beverly Hills. She endured two failed marriages, ran the family business and raised seven children before becoming Mother Antonia and moving into La Mesa at age 50.
Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters with The Washington Post, spent three years researching Mother Antonia's journey and have written her story, "Prison Angel."
You can read an excerpt from the book below.
A riot rages inside La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. It's Halloween night, 1994, and the twenty-five hundred convicts locked inside one of the country's most violent and overcrowded prisons are struggling, as they do every day, to live one more. Sixteen men are locked in a block of punishment cells on the third floor. They are there for insulting guards, fighting with other prisoners, breaking the rules. They've been here for days, some for weeks. They are agitated and angry. There is never enough food in these cells, there are never enough blankets for the cold nights. It's filthy.
Worst of all, visitors aren't allowed up here. No place in the prison is harsher than these fetid punishment cells, and it's never been worse than tonight. The men can hear parties for Day of the Dead ringing from homes just outside the walls. It's one of Mexico's biggest days of the year, a big, happy, noisy family celebration honoring the departed. Families are together at home or in decorated graveyards filled with light and music and tequila and the hottest, sweetest bread you can imagine, and here they are, stuck in the hole.
It's too much, just too damned much. The prisoners come up with a plan. Someone calls a guard over to ask him a question. When he comes close enough, arms quickly pass through the bars and grab him, pinning him there and taking his gun and his keys. The prisoners quickly free themselves, then grab another guard and his gun, too. They tell the guards to get the hell out, then they set mattresses on fire in the cellblock and start shooting into the air out the windows.
Fearing the worst, the guards abandon their posts and shut off the electricity. Much of the prison now belongs to the inmates, and it's completely dark except for the flames rising from the top-floor windows. Outside in the crowded neighborhood of modest concrete homes that has grown up around La Mesa, people see the fire and hear the gunshots for blocks.
Police in riot gear show up. SWAT teams assemble on the streets. Television cameras set up quickly. Mothers and girlfriends of prisoners have come running, and they are watching a small army preparing to storm the prison.
"My son, my son, what are they going to do to him?" one woman wails.
Then into the darkness comes a tiny woman in a white habit.
She has clear white skin and round cheeks, and her smile seems to start in her bright blue eyes then spread across her face until it glows. She looks so happy.
"¡Madre! ¡Madre!" the desperate women call out, holding out their arms and running to her.