Excerpt: 'Prison Angel'

"¡Mamá! ¡Mamá! ¡Mamá!" the man says to her, embracing her as if hugging his own mother. Three other transsexuals in full drag do the same. As they swish away down the narrow passageway into the crowd of inmates, Mother Antonia says that nobody has a tougher life, in the prison or outside, than they do. Not only are they struggling with their sexuality, but they don't fare too well in the prison's macho culture, so she pays them special attention.

"You love the unlovable," says Frank, a prisoner who is waiting for her at the heavy mesh door of her cell, which is only a few steps away from the holding cell for the newcomers.

"I love the people whom other people think are unlovable," she says.

Mother Antonia introduces us to Frank, a tall and muscular former U.S. Marine. Frank says he made a dumb mistake and he's learned from it, thanks to Mother Antonia. He's serving a six-year sentence for trying to smuggle an illegal immigrant into the United States. He was born in Peru but grew up in New York and Florida and became a U.S. citizen. While stationed with the Marines in San Diego in 2000, a friend dared him to try to sneak a young Peruvian guy across the border in the trunk of his car. Frank was caught and convicted, and at nineteen, he was thrown into La Mesa. Now he spends his days with Mother Antonia, helping her attend to the inmates who come in a steady stream to her door, at all hours, asking for everything from prescription medicines to advice on how to deal with their spouses.

Mother Antonia asks Frank about a female inmate. She's thirty-eight, dying of cancer, and has eight months left on a six-year sentence for a minor drug conviction. Mother Antonia is trying to persuade a judge to order her release on humanitarian grounds. Meanwhile, Mother Antonia's bringing medicine for the woman from the pharmacy to ease her pain. Frank says he's just been to visit her in the infirmary, which is clearly not his favorite place. All those sick people with every sort of disease, he says, shaking his head. He still can't believe that Mother Antonia touches them, even greets them with the traditional Mexican kiss on the cheek. "These people have tuberculosis and stuff," he says to her, "and you just touch them -- you even kiss them. I'm afraid to do that."

She has given Frank many of her favorite books, including Once There Was a War, John Steinbeck's dispatches of World War II. He never liked to read books before but now says he sees what he was missing. He wants to become a dentist when he gets out, his interest piqued by watching -- and sometimes assisting -- the dentists Mother Antonia brings to the prison to fix prisoners' teeth.

Mother Antonia unlocks the door to her carraca, as many prison cells are known, and leads us inside. She is home. "When I grew up in Beverly Hills, my father told me I'd brag all my life about where I lived," she says, looking around her cell and laughing out loud. "He was right!"

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