On Prison and Leadership

Some of the best leaders I’ve ever known were in prison.

During our season in Allendale, God led me to do a little bit of prison ministry. It was a humbling decision, as God showed me how arrogantly I had viewed men who were living behind steel bars and sharp razor wire.

I am thankful for the experience I had doing that, because after God humbled me, he showed me some great examples of servant leadership. I saw men who wanted to engage and bless those around them, despite the direness of the circumstances.

Through the months of me meeting with the inmates (through Bible studies, book studies, and even a couple of Super Bowl parties), I grew in appreciation of some leaders – first, for some men who led the model program called the “Character-based Housing Unit (CHU) program, and also for the warden who directed Allendale Correction Institute (ACI).

Serving Their Sentences, While Serving Men

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.” Hebrews 13:3

For about 18 months, I mostly met with coordinators of the CHU program. It’s important to note that these coordinators are inmates (or “residents,” as they prefer to be called) who work under the authority of the officers and staff of ACI. They are entrusted with a certain amount of responsibility and authority, some of which leads to tensions with other residents.

The goal of the CHU program is to help prepare the men in the prison to return to life outside of the prison. They are required to take classes on manhood, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation (if needed), and must either work or be in the process of earning an educational degree.

As the months have passed, I have grown in appreciation and fondness for the CHU coordinators. They have been working to make themselves better. They want to be contributors, not consumers and conformists. And they are helping other men do the same.

One day, a sudden revelation gave me an even greater awe of these men. Some of these CHU leaders have life sentences. Barring a miraculous pardon by the state governor, they will never leave the prison system.

Think about that . . . a group of men are working and sacrificing to mentor and guide other men. And some of these men are not doing it to better themselves for society’s sake (since they will never be in society again). Some are only doing it to help the men around them.

I was blessed every time I got to meet with them, as we met together to mutual learning, sharing, and encouraging.

The Man, the Legend

Since my first involvement with the prison in Allendale, I heard nothing but compliments about Warden John Pate – compliments from inmates, from guards, and from other volunteers. Everyone recognized and talks about how caring of a leader he is.

As someone who is just a few years away from retirement, the warden could have chosen to coast until the conclusion of his career. But he helped bring in the CHU program a few years ago. He could have merely managed the men until their sentences were completed, but he wanted to do more for them. By his own will, he took on the responsibility of installing this program at ACI.

Engaging our culture is about service and movement. It’s about having a vision for how life could be better for others, and taking action on that. Warden Pate exemplified that for me and many others.

Real Men, Behind Bars

When I look at some of the men at Allendale Correctional Institute, I see what it looks like to engage with those around you. I see men – residents and staff — who are sacrificing and working hard to make life better for others. I see men who could ride out their sentences or careers, but who choose to do more.

Instead of living on cruise control, they are full speed ahead. They are accelerating towards the pain of others, so that others can be blessed.

Years ago, I would look down on these guys in the prison. Now, I look up to these impressive men.

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13


-Joey Espinosa