Excerpt: 'Prison Angel'

Her cell is concrete and cold. Her small bed is along the back wall, and two thin windows near the ceiling look out on a guard tower and barbed wire outside. A large crucifix hangs on one wall, and a few photos are scattered about on a small table, next to a Bible and a Spanish dictionary. Her pressed white blouses hang above a plastic garbage bag filled with hotels soaps and shampoos, stamped with "Hotel Del Coronado" or "Grand Hyatt," donations from friends in California that she passes out to inmates. She keeps a big jar of peanut butter near her bed so she always has something to give to any hungry prisoner. The door to the bathroom, nothing more than a bare toilet and a cold-water shower, is only a sheet. An oxygen tank sits next to her bed, evidence of her increasingly poor health.

She was born with an unusual problem with the tendons in her hand, which left her unable to make a fist. She underwent surgery to repair the problem when she was a child, the first of her long list of operations. Her real pain and health troubles began when she was nineteen and she lost her first child during delivery. Seven more pregnancies compounded the problems, and she developed a hiatal hernia. During an operation to repair that in 1992, when she was sixty-five, her esophagus was punctured by mistake.

Over the next seven months she had six major operations, and during one of them, surgeons removed her spleen. For two years she could swallow only liquids. Friends jokingly called her the Sword Swallower because of the rubber tube she had to slide into her esophagus to keep it from closing up.

Her heart is weakening. She has two leaky valves and significant blockage in her arteries that give her trouble breathing. Doctors recommended that she leave the prison for health reasons. When she refused, they insisted that she keep an oxygen tank at her bedside. She sees it as part of her work, insisting that "my pains make me even more aware of other people's pain."

Mother Antonia has a million little sayings, distillations of what she has learned from seeing so much hardship and loss. She sprinkles them into her conversations constantly, like the little drops of chile sauce Mexicans put on everything from eggs to pizza.

"Life is a boomerang -- what you do for others comes back to you."

"Everything you do either adds to the beauty of the world or takes away from it." "Life is not a series of green lights."

Over the years, inmates have sometimes lied to her, stolen from her, even swiped her cell phone, but she doesn't let it get her down. She sums up her philosophy this way: "Live within the day. Forget about yesterday; it's over. Take everything bad and negative, and toss it away. Learn to step out from what is holding you back. To hate people will not change anything; to love them will."

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