by Fred Dickey Published August 6, 2012
In the business he’s in, Dennis Martinez will watch half his clients go to prison. It’s a percentage he can live with, although with disappointment. It just underscores what a tough gig he’s got.
He runs a halfway house for ex-convicts, and so, 50 percent failure means success and says he’s doing something right. The stark reality-backdrop is that more than two-thirds of California’s ex-cons return to prison. That’s called recidivism, and it’s a dirty word.
Martinez, 52, is a pastor, founder and main man at Training Center, a faith-based residential treatment program on Grand Avenue in Spring Valley that houses, feeds, counsels, encourages, guides, preaches to, frowns at, and administers tough love to 70 just-released male convicts at any given time.
The staff of more than 20 is mainly comprised of men who themselves have looked out through bars, as has Martinez himself, many times.
In its seven years, Training Center has seen about 1,000 released convicts come and go through its three-month program. (It used to be six months, but a dearth of state funding for the center has forced a curtailment.)
The center gets few contributions. Martinez says whimsically: “We don’t have much of a grant writer.”
I visit Training Center for church services on one of those glad-to-be-alive San Diego Sunday mornings. It’s a two-story stucco, U-shaped complex sided by dormitories and a headquarters. In the center is a concrete patio that is set up for services.
There are about 40 men and a couple of women seated on folding chairs under a wide canvas awning with a dilapidated bus as backdrop for a makeshift pulpit. The men are wearing bluejeans and short-sleeve shirts or T-shirts. Their arms, and a few faces, are festooned with enough tattoos to make a wall mural, ranging from serpentine swirls of color to crude jailhouse art. Several are reading biblical texts along with the speaker. A few stand with arms upraised to receive the spirit. One man is quietly reading an Islamic booklet.
Martinez is one of several speakers, but it is his voice that commands the audience, his that radiates authority. He could pass as one of the parishioners; his appearance and tattoos blend right in. This is a man who does not step lightly or split hairs. His message is traditional evangelical, but he tailors it to men possessing as many demons as the guy named Legion in the New Testament. It’s not an easy sell, but several respond to Martinez’s urgings to rededicate their lives.
That he is standing and speaking instead of sitting and listening is a circumstance some would call luck, others the hand of God.
As a kid, Dennis Martinez started out as a rocket that shot high and bright and then sputtered and plunged. He was a world champion skateboarder in the late ’70s. To those readers who grew up with strap-on roller skates, that may not sound like a big deal. However, to kids and followers of X-sports, it’s huge, requiring practice and skill equal to a star quarterback. At one point, as a teenager, he was earning $40,000 per month when that was real money.
But, alas, enter drugs and the streets; exit money, skill and decency. He became a drug dealer who also became his own best customer — convenient, I guess, but definitely not a good return on investment. To buy his own inventory, he was a robber, thief and violent criminal. The cops certainly knew him. As he acknowledges, “My label to the police was 5150 — ‘Approach with extreme caution.’ ”
Then, at age 36, suspicion was thrown on him for a murder that he says he was quickly cleared of, but the possibility of life without parole put the fear into him. He went to see pastor Gary Beneventi, then of Horizon Christian Fellowship in Clairemont, and left a different man.
Beneventi remembers it well. “We talked for a long time, and right before my eyes I saw a supernatural conversion. He was silent. His eyes were filled with tears. At that moment, his life was dedicated to Jesus. Ever since, he has been doing great things.” That was 16 years ago.
“The Lord getting me off the streets saved a whole lot of grief,” Martinez says with a slight smile, now secure in his status as a family man and member of the middle class.
But he didn’t forget from whence he came. He didn’t turn his back on his former peer group, he reached out to them. By so doing, he was fully aware that “con” can stand for either convict or confidence man. He developed good radar with which to tell the difference.
This is the type of person Martinez embraced: When an inmate is released from prison, he or she is given $200. That’s it. If his family provides clothing, he can leave in those. Otherwise, he departs wearing prison sweats. In my imagination, I can visualize a goodbye at the gate, with a Cool Hand Luke-type guard saying, with a pat on the back, “Now you come back and see us real soon, hear?”
He probably will. If he’s a confirmed bad guy, let’s hope he does. However, let’s say he’s 40 years old and tired. The angry fires of youth have died out. He wishes he could have a do-over, but he can’t. What he has is minimal education, lurid tattoos all over his body, no salable skills, a drug habit itching to be reborn and narrow-eyed suspicion following his every move. And then he may have a wife, no more of a prize than he, who harangues him to find a job that doesn’t exist. She then utters the accusation that cuts like a serrated knife: “You’re no kind of a man!”
You see where this is going?
Training Center will take all types of released convicts who pass a basic screening. Those include the full smorgasbord from murder on down, but primarily drug offenders. It won’t take those convicted of sex crimes because of proximity to a school.
Martinez has had to ask a few to leave because of misbehavior. Two have died on the premises because of drug overdosing. He tells all of them that he is legally obligated to report every crime of which he has knowledge. Sometimes when Martinez tells a resident he has to call authorities, the man will say, “OK, then I’m going to run.” He’ll then quickly pack up and disappear.
Convincing residents to turn in others in the program who break the law is difficult because it violates the prison code against snitching. But Martinez tells them that to be a good member of society, you have to speak up and intervene.
He says making residents comfortable with police is important because that’s the most difficult approval they can achieve. “Cops are leery of ex-cons, and rightfully so. But when you have guys earnestly trying to live down that stigma, the cops will be open to it.” He says that on occasion, residents will ride along with police to give advice to street kids.
Training Center has never had a released lifer return to prison, Martinez says. “Those who have served the long stints are those who really appreciate freedom, have had time to think and are usually remorseful.”
Success at Training Center is incremental and measured in small ways. “I’ve had guys call me all excited to tell me they have a 401(k). They never thought they’d ever have a 401(k).”
Martinez says his goal is to root out the criminal way of thinking. “We try to rehabilitate that mindset. We try to get them off of stuck-on-stupid and become a new person.”
As he did.
How a man starts out says a lot, but what he turns into is what he’s all about.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at email@example.com.