Excerpt: 'Prison Angel'

They talk about the need to start an Alcoholics Anonymous program for the guards. When the call ends, Mother Antonia turns to the wife and urges her to help her husband rather than criticize him. Then she asks for his cell number and dials it. "VĂ­ctor! This is Madre Antonia. I need you to come to my cell Saturday. I need your help with something."

"Thank you! Thank you!" the wife cries out, comforted that Mother Antonia will talk to him. She leaves, walking past the pile of Winnie the Poohs and stuffed animals that a donor from California has dropped off in the living room. By midafternoon, fifty children have come to the door and left with a new toy.

There are also restaurant-size cans of crushed pineapple and bags of used designer clothing; Nine West black sandals sit atop one pile. Everything goes to the prisoners, their families, and the needy of Tijuana. Literally tons of it every month. While we are there, a man drops off sixty liters of donated milk and juice.

A little girl pads around the living room. She had ended up in an orphanage because her mother, who was suffering from schizophrenia, couldn't care for her. One of the sisters in Mother Antonia's community adopted her, and now the little girl lives here, too.

The doorbell rings every few minutes. A man asks for a clean shirt. A boy asks for a pair of shoes. A twenty-year-old man asks for money to see a dentist; he has no upper teeth. The sisters find the shirt and shoes, and Mother Antonia writes a note to a dentist asking him to fix the man's teeth; she'll pay, as always.

Just as we are leaving, a man pulls up in an old beige Mustang. His name is Adam, and he is thirty-three. He tells Mother Antonia that he wants to kill himself, and that some instinct told him to come find her.

She puts her arms around him and hugs him.

"That is what I needed," he says.

The other sisters take him inside to chat for the afternoon and to fill him with warm food.

Mother Antonia then takes us with her across the border in her old blue Mazda, which was a donation, to get some papers notarized in San Ysidro, near San Diego. As she waits in line at the crowded crossing, a Mexican border guard recognizes her and walks up.

"Hi, Mama!" he says. "Can I please ask you a favor? Can you pray for my mother? She's sick."

Mother Antonia asks her name and promises to pray for her.

At the notary's office, a clerk, about fifty years old, comes up to her and whispers. "Madre Antonia," he says. "I'm one of your sons. I was in La Mesa fourteen years ago."

He is fighting back tears. Mother Antonia touches him gently and says she is happy to see him doing so well.

Back at La Mesa, she checks with the guards at the Rooster House. The smell inside had been so overpowering in the morning that she asked that they clean it out, which they have.

A man is waiting for her near her cell. He says his catheter has been emptying urine into the same plastic bag for too long and asks if she can please get him a new one. She makes a note to take care of it before the day is out.

She is feeling a little tired, and she knows that her day -- like all her days -- won't end until late at night. There will be a steady stream of inmates coming to her door with every kind of problem. She lies down for a few minutes, twists the valve on her oxygen tank, puts the mask over her face, and allows herself a few long, deep breaths.

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