Mother Antonia, the “Prison Angel.” (Photo: Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)

Maybe you know, or maybe you don’t: for too many years, it was common for the children of inmates to live in La Mesa prison (a maximum security prison in Tijuana) with their parents. At one point, almost 500 children were living in this prison—a prison built for adults.

Maybe you know, or maybe you don’t: Vida Joven first came into being as a caring and temporary home for these very children. A parent could entrust his or her children to Vida Joven free of charge, knowing that the children would be loved and protected until the parent’s release from prison.

Almost twenty years before Vida Joven came into being, a wealthy woman from Beverly Hills voluntarily moved into a cell in La Mesa prison. Mary Clark, a Roman Catholic twice-divorced mother of eight, had long been drawn toward and involved in the service of others. After her second marriage came to an end, she donned a homemade nun’s habit, took the name of Mother Antonia, and began to minister among those on the outermost margins of society in San Diego and Tijuana.

Mother Antonia greets prisoners with a hug and kiss. (Photo: Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)

Upon entering La Mesa prison for the first time in the 1970s, Mother Antonia said she felt as if she’d “come home.” The prison authorities gave her permission to stay in a 10’ by 10’ cell in the women’s section of the prison, and there Mother Antonia made her home. Her mission? To love people, to give them hugs, and to treat them with dignity—be they inmates, guards, or families of the prisoners.

You can read Mother Antonia’s story in Prison Angel: Mother Antonia’s Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Tijuana Jail (Penguin Press: 2005), by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.  Jordan and Sullivan, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalists, spent three years getting to know Mother Antonia and her work.

The book is a quick and compelling read. Several black and white photos in the center of the book add visual interest. The realities and challenges faced by Mother Antonia may seem at times to be a bit oversimplified in the book. Yet perhaps this oversimplification is testimony to the honesty and purity with which Mother Antonia approached other human beings. Hugs really do help, a smile really can make a difference, and courage really does matter.

Because you care for the children of Vida Joven, I commend this inspiring book to you. Since 2002, children are (fortunately) no longer allowed to live in La Mesa prison. The mission of Vida Joven now focuses on kids who have been abandoned, abused, and neglected. While circumstances have changed, at the heart of Vida Joven there remains a passionate commitment to love, protect, and educate Tijuana’s most vulnerable children.

Thank you for your part in this vitally important work. May your reading of Prison Angel give you greater appreciation and understanding of the children we care for together.

by Beth Beall