Excerpt: 'Prison Angel'

Everyone knows her. She is Mother Antonia. She's the American sister who lives in a cell and shivers in the same cold showers as the prisoners. She calls the men mis hijos, my sons, and brings a mother's love to some of Mexico's most forgotten. There are rumors that she was rich once, maybe even a millionaire or a movie star. Nobody really knows exactly where she came from or why, but they know she will help them, and they know the prisoners trust her more than anybody else.

Mother Antonia was on an errand outside the prison when she heard about the trouble and has come rushing back to her adopted home, with its imposing walls and guard towers. She hears the ominous snaps and clacks of ammunition being loaded and smells the acrid fire. Terrified women mob her.

"Calm down," she says. "This is not the time to be screaming. The men can hear you in there. They're going to be all right, but you need to pray, not yell. Everything will be all right. I'm going to go inside to see your sons -- my sons -- right now."

The television cameras record it all and follow her as she turns and walks toward the darkened prison entrance. The warden, Jorge Alberto Duarte Castillo, is out of town. His assistant stops her at the office by the gate.

"I can't let you go in there, Mother. It's too dangerous right now."

She insists. She demands that he call her friend Duarte. She is sure he will give permission for her to go inside. It is her home and her life. She is needed in there now. He calls, and she tells Duarte she wants to talk to her hijos and persuade them to end the violence.

"No, Mother, you can't go in. It's too dangerous," he says on the other end of the phone.

"Jorge, you know my mission is to be in there right now," she says. "This isn't a time to back out."

Jorge Duarte knows the prisoners listen to her. He also knows that she is right, that a massacre could well be in the making; it has happened too many times before. He gives the order to let her in.

A guard unlocks the door and lets her pass.

It is black dark inside. She is alone, walking slowly down empty hallways, feeling her way along a route she knows so well. She can hear the shots and smell the smoke from upstairs. When the lights went out, some prisoners had run to their cells while others hid under tables and behind doors. Now they come out, surprised to see Mother Antonia instead of riot police.

"Mother, what are you doing in here?" one asks her.

First one, then five, then more prisoners gather around her in the darkness. They tell her that she should get out, she could be killed. Don't worry, she tells them, I'll be safe. She leads the men, mostly poor young Catholic Mexicans raised to worship God and their mothers, into the small chapel off the prison yard. She kneels and prays out loud for angels to protect everyone in the prison. Then she rises and heads out the door, an inch at a time in the darkness, toward the punishment cells.

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