Excerpt: 'Prison Angel'

"They just wanted to be free," she says, her white habit shining in the hot glare of the lights. "They just wanted to be free."

There is more to the story. But she knows this isn't time to tell it. For the moment, she just turns and disappears into the night, back to her cell.

She lives there, past the guards with shotguns on the wall overhead, through the sets of iron doors, down banged-up hallways under cold neon lights. Years after the riot we visit her there, to begin discovering how such a gracious woman who lived so much of her life in the comforts of suburban Los Angeles chose to live in this hard place. She comes to greet us at the prison's main gate. Just five foot two, wearing a black-and-white habit and a crisp white veil framing her beaming face, she is a whirligig of energy and cheer. "¿Cómo estás, mi hijo?" How are you my son, she says, hugging and kissing each guard she passes. Visitors in the waiting area rush to her, holding out their hands to greet her: ¡Madre! ¡Madre! ¡Madre! She has a moment for each of them, fixing them with blue eyes so luminous they almost seemed lighted from within. She touches the children gently on their heads.

She turns to us, and her smile seems to give off heat.

We follow her down a few long corridors and into the heart of the prison. All around her are prisoners, a few wearing ironed shirts, clean jeans, and leather boots, but many dressed in rags. She greets every prisoner and guard she passes. She's exuberant, and everything about her says life is good, life is fun.

She sees one guard and practically shouts, "¡Buenos días, Sergio!"

Another can't cork his grin when she nearly sings at him, "¡Hola, mi amor!"

We see right away how warmly Mother Antonia touches everyone, how much she likes people. We look at the prison guards standing on the wall above her and see gruff men in knockoff Ray-Bans, the official eyewear of Third World law enforcement, and wonder what they do to prisoners when nobody is looking. She looks up all sparkly-eyed at the same guards as if they are the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. She has given them a copy of the movie "The Green Mile," dubbed in Spanish. It's about redemption, kindness, and hope, and it's set on death row. Her kind of flick. A guard tells her he loved the movie, and he's passing it on to another guard that night. "¡Qué bueno, mi amor!" -- How great, my love, she responds.

Mother Antonia's accent is pure gringa, as the Mexicans say. She doesn't care that she doesn't speak Spanish like Cervantes, she just plows ahead and everyone understands her. She believes that what she lacks in perfect verb conjugations, she makes up for in love for Mexico.

We arrive with her at the Gallinero, the Rooster House, a large cell filled with prisoners who have committed minor infractions. A couple dozen men are caged there, some standing, some lying on the concrete floor. The smell is brutal from the single toilet in the corner. Mother Antonia passes her arms through the bars and touches the men and kisses their cheeks. A few of them look hard and mean, but most of them just look sad. She asks them, "Have you eaten? Do you need anything? Is there anyone I can call for you?"

Most inmates are freely walking around the prison. To an outsider, the place doesn't look so much like a prison as a big, walled city. As we move on, Mother Antonia sees an inmate she knows. He is wearing lipstick and a dress.

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