A family of jailbirds

Debra J. Saunders

2/7/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
Over dinner, the middle-class, suburban family of activists discusses the time each of them has spent behind bars. Ron, the 64-year-old patriarch, is a gruff, much-decorated Vietnam vet who likes a Rusty Nail at cocktail hour. "I think I feared more than anything else that I might be sexually abused. It was a crazy thing to fear, but that's what I feared," he later explains with a laugh. Instead, inmates often respected that he put himself behind bars for a cause, and some toughs took it upon themselves to protect him and other activists. I disagree with their cause, but admire how this family has lived its beliefs. Ron estimates that he has spent cumulatively between 18 months and two years behind bars, including time in prison (not just jail, where all the inmates are petty criminals or awaiting sentencing). Wife Nancy, 63, discovered that being arrested was "really scary. I found out, for the first time, I get claustrophobic." She gave up getting arrested close to a decade ago, she said, because the state of California threatened to revoke her day-care license. "I found the people on the whole very nice in jail. They're really sad cases and they've had hard lives, but they have heart," she sighed. Daughter Mary Riley, 43, and her husband Tom, 42, live with Ron and Nancy. Tom now teaches at a private Catholic school. He went to jail in New York and New Jersey before he met Mary. "The people I encountered were far more afraid than I was," Tom recalled. It didn't hurt when he could lift more weight than anyone else in his pod. Like her two sisters, Mary also has done time. She tells of the time she impressed her cellmates by facing the highest bail of anyone in the jail. Most of her stints in stir were for short periods, but she once spent three months in a Contra Costa jail. There would come a time during each incarceration, she remembers, when hard-as-nails fellow cellmates would take a look at her -- a motherly white woman who could pass for Auntie Em -- and ask: What are you in for? "I'd tell them that I'm in here for saving babies," she explains. "I was arrested, technically for trespass at an abortion clinic. And I sort of brace myself, because most of these women know what I'm talking about. They know someone who had an abortion, or they had abortion themselves." The Rileys don't get arrested anymore, although they remain committed to their cause. When they married in 1995, Mary -- now administrative director of the nonprofit Life Legal Defense Foundation -- thought they would be entering a more comfortable time in their lives. (Alone, she had raised two children from a previous marriage. Now her son is at West Point and her daughter attends college in Southern California.) Then, the Rileys learned about a substance- abusing pregnant single mother. When her son was born, they took him in. A couple of years later, the Rileys added a daughter to their family. Then came a bright-eyed baby boy, now 1 year old. In December, the last adoption became final. The moms of all three children were "abortion bound" during their pregnancies, according to Mary Riley. All the children have "special needs" because of their mother's drug or alcohol abuse. The household's most recent addition is a 5- year-old Belgian shepherd whose owner, in the hospital for pancreatic cancer, was afraid he would have to put the sweet dog to sleep. "We're so blessed. I can't tell you," Mary explained. "People look at us and say what a good thing you're doing. I cannot tell you, It's the exact reverse. These kids are the most beautiful children."