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Walworth County Jail mentor helps inmates turn their lives around

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Ted Sullivan
October 17, 2008
— Surrounded by concrete walls, locked iron doors and a detention officer, John Espinoza gave advice to three Walworth County Jail inmates likely headed to prison.

"When I first came in, I knew I was going to do some time. It seemed like such a long time," he told the men. "But you know what? You get the amount of time you need to change your life."


The 53-year-old Lake Geneva resident turned his life around after participating in the jail mentoring and Bible study program. Now, he's returning the favor by leading the program for maximum-security inmates.


Espinoza considers the inmates his brothers. He sees past their orange jailhouse uniforms, past their tattoos and past the violent crimes they have committed. He sees himself.


Espinoza has been addicted to drugs and alcohol. He has betrayed his wife and children. He has been captive in prisons. He has been to jail classes such as this one.


"He has proven to be a real asset to the ministry," Walworth County Jail chaplain Larry Hansen said. "I value his friendship and his participation."


Drug and alcohol addiction

Espinoza grew up in North Dakota and was raised by both parents. His dad is from Mexico and became a U.S. citizen. His mom is from Texas. He has three brothers.


"We were farm kids," he said. "I'm the only one of three brothers that has ever gotten in trouble."


Espinoza joined the Marines in 1974 when he was 18. He started hanging out with Vietnam War veterans. The people around him were bad influences.


Espinoza began drinking alcohol nightly. He smoked pot. He became addicted to drugs and booze.


After leaving the Marines, Espinoza moved from North Dakota to Arizona, to California, to Texas. He got married and had two daughters along the way. In 1989, he joined his father and brothers in Racine.


Selling drugs

Espinoza continued using drugs and alcohol. He tried speed, cocaine, acid and other drugs. He went to the bars. He admits to being "half" a father while his daughters, now ages 28 and 24, were growing up.


Despite his addiction, he held a job as an inspector.


Espinoza moved his family to Walworth County 14 years ago to get away from trouble. He believed Walworth County would be safer for his daughters.


He found jobs working as a quality assurance technician at different companies.


But his problems followed him.


Espinoza began selling cocaine and marijuana to friends and coworkers to support his own drug habit.


One woman to whom he sold cocaine got busted and turned into a police informant. She continued buying drugs from Espinoza under police surveillance.


"I got arrested and taken to jail," Espinoza said.


Espinoza pleaded guilty in March 2000 to felony charges of delivery of cocaine and delivery of marijuana. Other drug charges were dismissed as part of a plea agreement.


The judge sentenced him to eight years in prison.


A new life

One week after his arrest, Espinoza met the chaplain.


"He was restless," Hansen said. "He was excitable, and I just saw a lot of anxiety in his life and a lot of aggression."


The two met weekly in the jail for nearly six months. Espinoza was mentored by Hansen and attended his Bible studies.


He learned that men didn't have to drink or get high. He realized it was more important to be a good husband and father.


"When I was in jail, I started a plan to change my life," he said. "I didn't want to go back to the way I was.


"I gave my life to Jesus Christ."


The two continued their visits while Espinoza served prison time at facilities across the state. Hansen sent him clothes, birthday cards and letters.


"He cared about me," Espinoza said.


Espinoza relied on his faith to get him through three years of prison. He found prison jobs as a clerk. He led Bible studies. He used his time behind bars to change his life.


He got out early in February 2003.


Hansen picked him up from prison.


"It's who picks you up at the gate that determines what's going to happen to you," Hansen said.


A free man

After Espinoza left prison, he reconciled with his wife and daughters.


"One of the biggest outcomes is they're going to be reunited with their families and become better fathers and better husbands," said Rich Marrano, 53, a Burlington resident and jail mentor.


Then Espinoza's wife, who had stuck by him all those years, died two months later from health complications.


She never got to know the man who changed his life.


"I was a crappy husband, man," Espinoza said. "And she loved me through all that.


"It was the hardest time in my life," he said. "When my wife died, I wanted to drink; I wanted to do drugs, but I didn't."


And Hansen was still by his side, mentoring him and holding him accountable for his actions.


"I tried to point him in the right direction. I was basically there for support," Hansen said. "If there was a struggle in his life, he would go over it with me and we'd talk."


Hansen later asked Espinoza to help mentor inmates and lead Bible studies.


Espinoza can reach inmates in ways others can't.


"I'm one of them. They know I understand," he said. "I've lived what they've lived."


He since has helped many inmates turn their lives around.


"I want to bring hope where someone brought me hope," Espinoza said. "The biggest thing I bring them is the hope of change because a lot of people know what I used to be."


'Tough to be in captivity'

Inside the jail, Espinoza wore a shirt with thought-provoking questions written on it:


"Do we choose or are we chosen?"


"Can there be peace on earth?"


"What is beauty?"


"What if Jesus meant everything he said?"


Espinoza opened his Bible study with prayer, and the inmates bowed their heads and held their hands together. All three inmates brought Bibles.


They spent the 90 minutes reading Bible verses about captivity. The inmates listened closely to Espinoza. He told them to rely on God while in prison.


"I did come to the realization that I couldn't do it by myself," Espinoza said. "It's tough to be in captivity."


At the end of their meeting, the men closed in prayer. Espinoza gave each inmate a hug goodbye.


"I love these guys," Espinoza said. "They're my brothers."



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