Excerpt: 'Prison Angel'

She shuffles her feet carefully along the prison's cement floor, her outstretched hands feeling the way along the walls. Finding the stairway leading up, she realizes she is not alone in the blackness. The men have stayed with her. She doesn't know if there are five or fifty, but she feels them and hears them all around her like a human shield. She is the closest thing to heaven most of them have ever seen, this woman who brings them pillows and pure white bandages, who keeps the guards from beating them, who never stops hugging them and telling them they are loved. They call her Mother. And they are going to take a bullet rather than have La Madre die tonight.

She can feel the heavy black metal doors of cells as she passes them. The screams and shooting are close now, the smoke is sharp in her eyes and lungs. She calls out to the men in the punishment cells.

They are shocked to hear her.

"Don't shoot! Mother's here!" they yell.

"Mother Antonia! Get out of here. You'll be killed!" one inmate shouts. "Please, go. You'll be shot!"

She doesn't stop. She moves forward toward their voices.

"What's going on here? The whole city is terrified," she says. "Your mothers and girlfriends and children are outside crying. Please stop. There's an army out there getting ready to come in."

She tells them that if they don't put down their weapons, more children will be orphaned, including their own. Think of your parents crying at another family funeral, she pleads. Her voice is warm, convincing, and urgent, and it suddenly changes the ugly night.

The metal door to the punishment cell block opens. She can now see a bit by the light of burning mattresses. Her white clothes are singed with ash. An inmate she knows as Blackie steps forward from the shadows.

"Mother..."

She pushes her way inside like a running back.

"C'mon, C'mon. Give me the guns. Give me the guns right now. I'm not going to let you get hurt. I'm not going to let them hurt you and punish you. Give me the guns." "Mother," Blackie says. "We've been up here so long they've forgotten us. The water's gone, and we're desperate."

Mother Antonia falls to her knees in the smoky hallway. She is right in front of Blackie, looking up at him with her hands held out, palms up, pleading with him.

"It's not right that you're locked up here, hungry and thirsty. We can take care of those things, but this isn't the way to do it. I will help you make it better. But first, you have to give me the guns. I beg you to put down your weapons."

"Mother," Blackie says softly, looking down at her. "As soon as we heard your voice, we dropped the guns out the window."

Mother Antonia walks Blackie downstairs to the gate, shouting to the guards and police that he is coming out, unarmed. Duarte has hurried back from Mexicali, a nearby city, and arrives at the prison just in time to see Mother Antonia and Blackie emerge from the darkened yard. They all sit in Duarte's office, and he listens to Blackie's long list of complaints. The two men agree to a settlement. Blackie promises an end to the violence. Duarte promises better conditions. The lights come back up in the prison. The riot police pack up and leave.

Mother Antonia emerges through the prison's front gates. The mothers and wives and daughters rush to hug her close; this time their tears are from joy. "Why were the prisoners so angry?" one television reporter shouts.

Mother Antonia turns to face the cameras.

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