Dennis put down four bills on his desk in different denominations – a hundred, a twenty, a ten, and a one. “Each of these bills costs the same to make,” he said. “I tell my guys, ‘How much is this one worth?”‘ He picked up the one. “‘Not much.’ They usually say. So I respond, ‘You’re right, and this is you, brotha. This is what society says you’re worth. But the only reason these bills are worth anything different is because man places different values on them. Same story for you. You might be crumpled, spit on, torn. But, I don’t see it that way. You’re worth more than society says you are.'”
I was speechless. It was a metaphor I’d never heard before. People (in this case, inmates) adopt the value of themselves that society imposes on them, and to become more requires breaking that cycle of thought, recognizing past transgressions, and moving on – understanding that they’re worth more. Capable of more.
Dennis Martinez is a skateboarding legend. He was the 1977 World Freestyle Champion and remained good friends with skateboard royalty Jay Adams through to his tragic passing.
Somewhere along the way in the late ’70s, though, Dennis developed a drug habit, and the passion for skateboarding that fueled him was temporarily shrouded, if not entirely lost. “I was a drug addict for 20 years, 16 on the needle,” he said.
When Dennis talks about that time now, he puts what became his mission once the drugs took hold plainly. “I had to rob to get the money to get the dope to get the needle to get the hotel room to get the girl.”
And his life would have continued as such had it not been for two events that rocked him to his core. The first was when a judge gave Dennis’ good friend, Paul Dornberg, a 678-year sentence. And later, Dennis’ brother was charged with 27 counts of burglary. Both hit close to home.
In the case of Dornberg, Dennis said they used to commit crimes together. “I should be in prison with him,” he said. As for his brother, Dennis says that he was simply modeling Dennis’ behavior and got locked up for it. His brother is out now. “I went from being in front of a judge for my own sentencing to standing next to an ex-district attorney in front of that same judge trying to plea for our client’s leniency,” says Dennis’ brother. “From state prison to state court, from orange jumpsuit to Armani trial suit.”
It’s those stories, though, and the ones of other inmates across the country in which Dennis sees himself. After deviating from the drug riddled path, and finding God, Dennis and his business partner took it upon themselves to give others a second chance, opening a drug and alcohol treatment center for men transitioning from prison back into society. The Training Center is a faith-based facility that offers the men housing, counseling services, treatment planning, anger management, and life skills workshops. The amount of respect shown to each person that goes through the program is evident down to the way that each person is referred to as a “client.”
“Not only does our program work, it saves the state money,” he said, emphatically. “It’s a no-brainer for them. It costs $62,300 per year to house a man in prison vs. $24,000 per year to rehabilitate a man in our facility.” Dennis pulled out a calculator, punching it hard murmuring to himself, punching numbers. Then he flipped it around. “That’s about $7 million we save the state per year!”
Following our chat in his office, Dennis took me around to meet the current crop of clients. Walking through the halls we passed a handful of folks he pointed out as graduates of the program that were now working at the facility full time.
“Let me introduce you to some of the lifers,” he said (prison lingo for someone given a life sentence). “One guy who just came to us this week after more than thirty years inside has this eternal grin on his face. He’s just so happy to be out.”
Lifers, Dennis explains, aren’t like other clients. For one, they spent much of their sentence feeling like they’d never get out. They’ve defied the odds. And even then, once released the rules are different for them. If they screw up on the outside, there are no second chances.
We walked inside one of the shared residences – like a small two-story condo, with a living space and a few bedrooms. We chatted with the guys living there. The majority had only been out for a week or two.
“Man, the craziest thing to me was eating with a metal fork and hearing the sound of it clanging against your teeth,” said one of the men. Dennis starts busting up. “We had one guy a few weeks ago walk across the street and just hug a tree!” said Dennis, laughing. “It had been decades since he’d seen a tree.”
The guys remarked they were happy to take things slow in their first weeks of freedom – to just soak it in and take the time to complete small tasks, like getting themselves new IDs.
It’s these small steps, Dennis explains, that matter, and the guidance that The Training Center provides that give these men the opportunity to take steps in the right direction for themselves. As a Cobian ambassador, Dennis takes the message that “Every Step Matters” to heart, and each year Cobian provides sandals for staff and “clients” to help support their mission.
When I went to leave, I heard footsteps behind me. One of the clients we’d been talking to rushed to the gate to say goodbye. “I was just in my cell… I mean my room…” he began, but stopped short, then flashed a grin. A reminder to himself that he was on the outside now.