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THE PRISON ANGEL
Mother Antonia's Journey from BeverlyHills to a Life of Service in a Mexican JailBy Mary Jordan and Kevin SullivanPenguin Press ; 237pp ; $24.95
The Good An amazing story of how an American nun ministers to inmates in Tijuana's toughest jail.
The Bad As a tale of a spiritual quest, this book may exude too much piety for some.
The Bottom Line An effective portrayal of the human side of Mexico?s broken justice system.
So far this year more than 500 people have died in violent incidents along the Mexican side of the U.S. border. Most were victims of battles among traffickers who handle most of the cocaine and methamphetamine entering the U.S. While the brutality is shocking, such carnage has been around for years: In 1998, at a Baja California ranch, 17 members of a single family involved in small-time drug smuggling were shot, apparently by thugs from a major cartel. Only two adolescent cousins survived. In the hospital, an American nun, Mother Antonia, comforted the traumatized youths for a month until they were able to give details about the killers. She also visited the 10 men accused of the killings in jail, urging repentance.
In 27 years of ministering to inmates in Tijuana's roughest prison, La Mesa, Mother Antonia has prayed with the most hardened criminals. In The Prison Angel, Washington Post correspondents Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan describe her spiritual journey. After two failed marriages, the diminutive Beverly Hills socialite Mary Clarke became a nun in the late 1970s. Perceiving a huge need, she moved into the Mexican prison where she has lived ever since. The Prison Angel's account of her quest may exude too much piety for some readers, but it's an effective way of getting at the human side of Mexico's broken justice system.
The book describes the horrific prison conditions in Mexico, where lowly inmates must pay for everything from toilet paper to water while wealthy criminals order in prostitutes and restaurant meals. Mexico's courts are stacked against the poor, who are jailed for years on minor offenses. Those with lawyers or connections often go free. Over the years conditions have improved only slightly.
Drug-related corruption is widespread among police, the army, judges, and politicians. Mother Antonia, now 79, is repulsed by this "terrible world of darkness." But she insists on ministering to the convicts, hoping they will reform -- or at least repent. Her extraordinary story offers insight into the conditions that suck Mexicans into the dirty business of dealing drugs. By Geri Smith