Warden Speaks About Unconditional Love

Tony Lamarque

Tony Lamarque is warden of Salinas Valley State Prison in Monterey County, Calif., a super-maximum facility employing 1,286 personnel, housing 4,200 inmates and operating on a $111 million annual budget. Salinas Valley provides long-term housing and services for minimum custody male inmates. Productivity and self-improvement opportunities are provided through academic classes, vocational classes and work programs. The prison opened in May 1996 and covers 300 acres. The facilities include a hospital and psychiatric program. Lamarque has served in corrections for 30 years and as warden at Salinas Valley for four years. He and his family attend Seaside Assembly of God in Seaside, Calif. Ted Britain, senior pastor). Lamarque spoke recently with Scott Harrup, associate editor.

Q: How did you become involved in corrections?

Lamarque: I grew up on the mission field. My parents and grandparents were Baptist missionaries to Haiti. From the age of 5, I knew that I wanted to be in law enforcement because I saw a lot of injustice and brutality in Haiti. I remember my grandmother used to pray for me, and she used to tell me that one day I would be in a position where I could help people and ensure that they were not abused. From that early age, I believed the Lord was calling me to serve as an officer. But I never dreamed He would lead me to this side of that career. When I started working in corrections in 1974, I thought it would only be for a couple years.

Now I can look back and see that God prepared me and has led me all these years. Even growing up in Haiti, growing up in an environment where people are bound in voodoo and superstition, I can say to prisoners today that I serve a God who is more powerful than all of that.

Since coming here, I’ve been amazed at what the Lord has done. There is a lot of violence, but I’m also seeing more and more prisoners turn to Christ. It gives me chills when I walk out there and someone will say, “We know you’re a Christian, Mr. Lamarque. We’re praying for you.” It’s so incredible to see how much light God can bright into such darkness.

Q: Do other people see a difference at the prison?

Lamarque: I recently gave a group of Monterey County police and sheriffs a tour of the prison. When it was over they asked me, “How do you do it? How do you get that much respect and love from your staff and the inmates? Everywhere we go someone is hugging you.” I told them, “There is a God who watches over me and I give Him all the glory.”

Q: You mentioned the problems with violence. How have you seen God intervene under those circumstances?

Lamarque: I’ve been in riots. I’ve been attacked. But I’m still walking today with all my limbs and a joyful spirit. Recently, I got a call to let me know that an inmate’s brother had been killed in a gang fight. The inmate was also pretty heavily involved with gangs. He’s a huge guy, filled with all the anger in the world because of his brother’s death. And I remember the Holy Spirit just put in my heart to go up to him and hug him. I put my arm around him and said, “You know, Jesus loves you. Sometimes you have to turn it all over to Him.” He just broke down and began to cry. One of my staff pastors was with us and we prayed for him.

Q: That’s powerful. Can you tell me another testimony?

Lamarque: There are so many. At my last prison there was one inmate who was a lifer. He had murdered a man, but he was always in denial. He would never accept it. One day he was in my office preparing to go in front of the parole board. I told him, “The only way you can resolve what you did is get it right with God. He’ll help you to get it right with the victim’s family.” We prayed together. Some time later he asked to see me. You know, when the Spirit of God falls on someone, you can watch that person change. He started crying. “I’ve always believed in religion,” he said. “Well,” I said, “Jesus is alive. Don’t believe in religion; believe in the One who died for you.” I challenged him to begin talking to God just like he was talking to me.

God did a powerful work in him. When he went before the parole board, he turned to the mother of his victim, apologized to her and asked for her forgiveness. You know, he didn’t get parole. He’s still in prison and may be for the rest of his life. But in my 30 years in corrections, I’ve never seen anyone more changed than he was. God has used him to touch so many other lives. Whenever I ask about him, he’s doing something for God.

Q: Some people believe inmates merely come to God to make themselves look better to a parole board. Would you say that, for the most part, inmate conversion is genuine?

Lamarque: You do have a few guys that try to use a conversion story that way. But even there, I believe that God touches a life anytime a person is exposed to the gospel. For the most part, inmates come to Christ in a genuine way, and other inmates know it. Christians in prison are watched, and if their testimony is genuine the other prisoners won’t pressure them to be involved in prison politics. But once a Christian does something that violates his testimony – does drugs, or gets in a fight with another prisoner – that space that was given to him is taken away. So, Christian inmates are usually very careful in their life-style. They know they’re being watched. They have to walk a straight line. I’m so glad to see that the Christians at Salinas Valley are growing in their faith every day.

Q: Working at a government facility, how do you separate your faith from your obligation to the State of California?

Lamarque: I’m not allowed to push my faith on anyone or mix my faith with any guidelines of this prison. But I am allowed to answer questions inmates have. And if you ask me a question about my faith, I’m going to explain it to you. God has given me so many opportunities like that.

Q: You’re rubbing shoulders with some of the most hardened criminals, yet you keep speaking of your love for these men. Where does that love come from?

Lamarque: I have no problem going to anyone, regardless of why they’re in prison, and telling them that there is a God who was kind and good enough to save me. And He will give them that same love, and blessing. To have someone come to you and pray for you, that’s one of the greatest gifts you can give. I’m so fortunate. I feel so blessed that God has allowed me to share the love of Christ like this. Jesus is calling to these people every day. All they have to do is turn to Him and give it all to Him.

I have a lot of Christian staff members and we have a group that prays for our whole facility. The greatest thing I can see the Lord doing here is to continue opening the hearts of our staff for the needs of our inmates. I’m seeing God soften so many hearts. You know, when I first came here, some officers didn’t want anything to do with a project like Angel Tree, where you buy Christmas gifts for needy kids. Now they go right to the list of gifts each Christmas and find out what they can get for the kids. For the last several years, they’ve given literally thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts to those kids.

Q: Any other thoughts?

Lamarque: If you’re a Christian, and you want to reach out, prisons are the places with the most opportunities. Prisons, county jails, whatever, are full of people who need to know that Someone years ago died for them and knows the kind of pain they’re facing. Prisoners are our biggest home missions field. We’re talking about thousands of people across this country. Imagine them being freed when they give their lives to Christ.


“Reprinted by permission of the Pentecostal Evangel.”

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