How One Inmate Learned To Read And Escape Gang Culture


There are currently 1.4 million active gang members in the United States, and most of them are teenagers. The state of California alone has over 338 different street gangs.

In some gang-dominated neighborhoods, it’s often easier to join a gang than not.

Gang membership within prisons has also been increasing over the last few years. Even those that manage to keep out of the gang scene on the outside find themselves under intense recruitment pressure once they’re in the prison system.

Easy to join and difficult to leave, gang membership is often a lifetime commitment. For many individuals coming out of prison, their gang affiliations are the closest thing they have to a support system. Unsurprisingly then, for many offenders leaving prison is a temporary process. Rates of recidivism across the United States can be as high as 65%.

Breakout Prison outreach is a non-profit religious cooperation based in California working to help people escape drug-addicted or gang lifestyles; regardless of their age, gender or religious beliefs.

Founded by ex-gang-member-turned-minister Pastor Anthony Ortiz, the agency works with ex-convicts and at-risk or gang involved youth to tackle both gang recruitment and offender recidivism in San Jose.

By providing recently released individuals and their families with support, the program is offering those at need a hand-up out of the cycle of re-offending.


David Marez is a lead case manager at Breakout Prison Outreach, but he’s also one of their success stories.

When David Marez was sentenced to prison time in San Quentin, he was barely aware what had happened. Growing up in a rough San Jose neighborhood, Marez was involved with drugs and alcohol from a young age.

“I think my first introduction to drugs was coming out of fifth grade,” he says. “My brother was babysitting me and in order for me to be quiet, he gave me a pill to put me to sleep. They were downers. That was the first time I ever had something that was illegal.”

With parents working out of county, Marez and his siblings we left to their own devices for large portions of time. In fourth grade, Marez stopped going to school. It was over six months before anyone figured out that Marez wasn’t turning up to class.

Following his introduction to drugs in the fifth grade, life for Marez became a party. By 17, he was already a father and starting to have run-ins with the police. When he had his daughter Christina, Marez was still at a second grade literacy level.

“I couldn’t even spell my daughter’s name, and I named her,” he says. “What I did to learn how to spell it was I wrote it over and over until I memorized it.”

Unable to read or write, and under the influence throughout most of his sentencing, Marez had little understanding of the escalating severity of his encounters with law enforcement. He repeatedly did stints in county jails — 10 months here, 16 months there. Marez reckons in total he had done about seven or eight years before he went to prison.

“I feel that I may have gotten taken advantage of in a lot of different ways in regards to the system,” says Marez. “A lot of the stuff that I got in trouble with, and that affected my life, was because of not understanding.”


Sink or Swim in San Quentin

After spending most of his youth in and out of county jails, David Marez found himself inside San Quentin, one of California’s most notorious prisons, on a three year sentence.

“I remember my first time in prison,” says Marez. “I got thrown against the wall in San Quentin because I didn’t understand the system. I was a new fish going in. I was learning really quick how the system worked.”

Despite priding himself on staying out of San Jose’s gang scene on the outside, Marez found that behind the walls of San Quentin the pressure to form alliances was high.

“There’s people who have gone to prison or to county jail and they’ve never been involved in gangs. But as soon as they get there, there’s an application done on them. Somebody comes and screens them,” he explains.

“You have to be a strong individual not to just fall into that — you may have to take a few beatings.”

It didn’t take long before he found himself being recruited. One morning, in the lower yard, he was approached by another inmate.

“This guy just walked me around. Showing me where the hidden shanks were, these hidden knives. And he goes, ‘You see those guys over there? You don’t hang out with them. You don’t go across that path over there.’ He started to school me.”

Marez had expected to find prison gangs in San Quentin. What he had not expected to find was God.

As if saved by the bell, the prison intercom played out over the lower yard announcing Bible study in the garden chapel. This was Marez’s cue to leave.

“I heard that and I was gonna take off. I wasn’t a part of them yet. If I was gonna get beat up or what, I was ready to face that. But I went to the garden chapel,” he recalls.

That trip to the garden chapel was Marez’s first real introduction to any organized faith.

Following a turbulent and drug-addicted adolescence in a gang neighborhood in East San Jose, Marez, like Pastor Ortiz,was sentenced to time in San Quentin Prison. It became a pivotal point in his personal journey.

Without his stint at the prison, Marez says he can’t be sure things would have turned out quite as well as they eventually did.

San Quentin, maintains Marez, changes lives. For him, the sentencing was a blessing in disguise.

Through the prison chapel, Marez found not just a relationship with faith that hadn’t existed for him before, but also a new purpose. In the 27 years since he left San Quentin, Marez has put his personal experiences and understanding of gang members and ex-cons to use, working for the very same agency that first supported him upon his release.

“We’re all ex-convicts, ex-drug addicts, and we’re becoming leaders. Because of our leadership and our training we are helping other people become the same thing,” says Marez.

“Schooled by the Holy Spirit”

Marez’s connection with the prison chapel changed the trajectory of his time both in prison and upon release. Beyond his personal relationship with faith, his involvement in the church had practical implications almost immediately. Because Marez took a job as a janitor at the chapel, he found himself on the “out count.”

“The out count means everybody else has to go back to their cells. I got to stay at the chapel because they counted me there. I didn’t have to go back to my cell,” he explains.

For Marez, this hugely influenced his time in San Quentin.

“I didn’t feel I was incarcerated,” he says. “I always had my freedom within the prison.”

Marez also credits the church with giving him the education he missed out on before prison.

While San Quentin does offer educational programs to prisoners, this wasn’t going to be an option for Marez. “I was supposed to go to school but there was a three year waiting list,” he explains. “I thought — well I’ll be out by the time I get to go to school.”

But Marez did start learning to read and write behind the walls of San Quentin — through the church.

“I started sitting in the back, back, pew of the church, and I would just listen,” he explains.

Following along in his bible as the Chaplain read aloud, Marez began to pick up the fundamentals.

“When the Chaplain would say turn to Matthew or turn to John I would look at the guy next to me when he opened his Bible and look at the letters J-O-H-N one by one.”

“I didn’t go to school. I went to church. I still didn’t go to school when I got out of prison! I did go to tutoring a little bit at a library, but that didn’t last long because my life got involved helping other people.”

From inmate to leader; moving to Breakout

Through the prison chapel, Marez met with Pastor Anthony Ortiz, founder of Breakout Prison Outreach. Ortiz himself is a former gang member and San Quentin inmate, and is now an ordained minister.

Marez laughs recalling his first meeting with ‘Pastor Tony’. Marez’s initial reaction to seeing three men in suits was that he was about to be served child-support papers. “I go ‘aww man! Child-support found me,’” he says.

In reality, Marez was getting ready for pre-release, and Ortiz wanted to see if he might be a good candidate for Breakout’s men’s home.

At that point in time,the Breakout Prison Outreach men’s home had17 ex-convicts, soon to be 18. Marez joined their ranks in 1991.

For many offenders, leaving prison ends up being a far less permanent transition than they might hope. Recidivism rates in the United States are exceptionally high, with California reporting that over 65 percent of offenders found themselves back in jail within three years of their release.

In part, these statistics are unsurprising when we consider what people are returning to on the outside. Homelessness and drug addiction are rife in the United States; particularly so in California. Many individuals simply lack a support system beyond their neighborhood gang ties.

Breakout Prison Outreach’s men’s home provides individuals with a network and support system upon release.

The home is a structured introduction back into life outside San Quentin’s walls, and in some senses an intensive Bible school. Marez recalls having to memorize and recite at least three scriptures a week.

But for Marez and many of his counterparts at the home, it was about so much more than learning verses and having a roof over your head.

“It was the love that made the difference for me while I was in the home. For the first time in a long time I was able to start feeling again,” he explains.

Marez continues, “in prison you have to be very careful even when you’re trying to change your life, cause there is a beast there. But on the outside — in that home — there was nothing but love.”

The men’s home has a six to nine month program, which Marez said he never graduated from.

After a few months, he explains, he was told “We don’t need you as a resident anymore. We need you as a leader.”

That quick transition to home leader was Marez’s first real authority role in a career with Breakout Prison Outreach that has now spanned almost 27 years. Having grown up around crime, drugs and gang members, Marez knows how to work with ex-cons.

The trick is letting them know you’ve been there too, and working with what they know.

How a gang mentality can aid reform

Marez explains that he talks both to clients and employees, most of whom are ex-convicts, “like a homeboy”.

“I have to take them back to where they were. To who they were when they were hardcore so that they can understand me” he explains.

Marez continues, “I have to hit them like a homeboy. I have to let them know that I’ve been there, I’ve done that.”

“This is for reals out here holmes. This is where the rubber meets the road.”

Sometimes this means putting things back into a prison or gangs context. It’s less about erasing people’s past and more about using that past to work effectively with them.

“One thing about these gangsters, these hard-core gang members, is that they’re loyal to their word. So we always work on their word.” explains Marez.

In the men’s home, if someone’s not cooperating or is angry about something like a weekend pass being pulled, the counselor will pull up the agreement that each home member signs upon arrival.

“He’ll ask them ‘did you sign this holmes?’ and they’ll go ‘yeah’” says Marez. “And the counselor will ask ‘Are you telling me your word’s no good?’”

This usually does the trick, according to Marez. No one’s willing to sully their word over something as small as pass being pulled.

Although Marez’s journey to Breakout was directly through Pastor Ortiz, people come to Breakout Prison Outreach through a number of different channels. Some are referred to the agency via the public defender’s’ office, by word of mouth, or through Judge Manley’s drug and mental health courts.

Marez’s team often works in conjunction with Judge Manley, whose work on criminal justice solutions we profiled in a previous piece. In fact Marez himself was once sentenced by Manley, back in the early 80s.

“I got put into his courtroom a few times back in the day” says Marez. “I vaguely remember, cause when I was in his courtroom I was under the influence, but I’ll never forget the patch!”

“It’s amazing what God has done, cause I’m getting referrals from the Judge that sentenced me!” he continues.

From the men’s home, Marez and his colleagues would volunteer and hit the streets of San Jose. They would minister the word of God and lead prayers — sometimes in the middle of parties, sometimes in the midst of violence.

Marez even recalls a time the team superglued up a man’s stab wounds before sending him on to the emergency department.

At this stage, Breakout were doing all their work for free. It wasn’t until someone suggested it, that they realized there were grants for the sort of work they did.

Hiring another ex-San Quentin resident to write proposals for them, Breakout Prison Outreach got their first $200,000.

The program quickly garnered support and funding from various sources, including the then-mayor of San Jose; Susan Hammer. With gang violence at a high in the early 90s, Hammer began funding Breakout.

Marez and his team used that money to take two enemy gangs camping.

“We took them to two different cabins. We took West Side Mob and Ortega gang members camping and that weekend there was no violence, because the two most notorious gangs in San Jose were out of town,” recalls Marez.

“There was word that there was going to be a killing. Nothing happened.”

Marez carried out work like this with at-risk and gang involved youth for a significant stint of his career. The team organized parks and rec programs in gang neighborhoods, ran redirection classes, and just generally interacted on the street with these youths.

There are plenty of success stories; one of the youths Marez worked with, from the same gang he once took camping, is now on Breakout’s board of directors.

The more you know, the more you can change

Having someone who knows where you’re coming from can be more important than whatever activity you’re doing. Breakout understand this and it’s why they are one of, if not the leading gang specialist programs in the area.

As well as its work with clients, they also train the police department and often work with other agencies to bring them up to capacity on gangs.

“Not everyone that comes to Breakout Prison Outreach is a gang member, I get them all,” Marez explains. “But we do have a speciality working with gangs. And when I do get a gang member that’s getting released, or an ex-gang member or drop out, I want them.”

“ I tell the resource center to send them my way. So they send me all the hard core gang members,” says Marez.

Having employees like Marez who understand the way the gangs and their members work means Breakout avoids making simple, but potentially catastrophic mistakes.

“We’re very careful how we make our appointments,” he explains, “and who is walking in when we screen these individuals. You can’t put an active member together with a dropout. So we’re very careful how we do things.”

The agency’s close ties with the police department have allowed them to establish a no-questions-asked gun return policy.

“We can turn in guns with no questions asked. We will wipe it all off ourselves, make sure there’s no fingerprints… as long as we got a gun off the street, we got a gun off the street,” says Marez.

To make something like this work, there needs to be exceptionally high levels of trust between the clients and their mentors at Breakout. On another level, Marez needs to know he can trust the police department, and that he will not get in trouble en route to the station with a gun in his possession.

Is bureaucracy hindering outreach?

Over his 27 year career with the company, Marez has seen it grow and gather momentum, funding, and support. But this hasn’t come without its challenges and frustrations.

“Somewhere in the middle of the third and fourth generation [of graduates] we started getting busier and the county started changing things and giving us more paperwork,” explains Marez.

As a consequence the agency’s success rate is changing. Marez puts this down to staff having less time to really get to know their clients and build that trust.

“Now it’s getting to the point where you can’t even leave the office to go shoulder to shoulder with somebody,” he says. “That’s what makes the biggest difference in somebody’s life you know, and that’s what’s needed. Meet them where they’re at.”

“When we began, we wanted to be different. We’re becoming a program like the county. We’re no longer being that different program. I’m watching the success rate change and that has a lot to do with the shoulder to shoulder you know.”

Despite this underlying frustration with county-level bureaucracy, Marez is generally enthusiastic and invigorated by the work Breakout Prison Outreach does. There’s a feeling that the county is slowly but surely coming round to the work they do.

“I’ve got to tell you, this county has changed. This county, this community, has embraced the population that we’re working with.”

A strengthened resolve

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Marez either. In 2003, after 13 years of sobriety, Marez relapsed. At that stage Marez was working teaching classes at juvenile hall, and had just moved his daughter and grandchild into his new house.

“I thought I was really up there in my sobriety,” explains Marez. “And somewhere down the line — I don’t even know where it started — I started using with this individual that I was trying to help.”

Marez quickly fell back into drug addiction, using crystal meth and other substances. But throughout this all he continued going to juvenile hall and teaching his classes. He was staying awake for days on end, and yet still turning up to work, driving kids to school and getting his paperwork done.

It took a neighbor from a Bible class that Marez had started, to finally break his slide back into drug addiction.

“I remember one of the people in that Bible study stopped me in the car on the street and said, ‘What you doing holmes, you don’t look too good.’ And I said, ‘Well I’m not doing too good,’ and I told her what was taking place.”

The neighbor ended up calling her brother who talked Marez into calling his executive director. Marez remembers crying like a baby when he saw him. After a stint of recovery spent living with friends in Oakland and at the executive director’s house, Marez resumed his job with Breakout Prison Outreach.

“I continued to work and my work became stronger than ever. My love for Christ became stronger than ever.”

Nowadays, Marez is still working at Breakout. He has moved back toward working primarily with men instead of youth. For a while, he had been keen to get back to working with people in prison, helping inmates establish a support system on the outside prior to their release.

Recently however, he’s had his clearance pulled.

New rules preventing individuals with felony convictions from visiting the prison means Marez will have to wait until inmates are already released before he can get in touch with them. It’s unclear what the solution to this clearance issue is likely to be. Marez seems to be largely in the dark as to the specifics, but is determined to get it cleared up.

“I’ll have to play it by ear,” he says. “I’m going to wait until my director comes back and we’re going to call together so we can figure this out.”

For now, Marez will keep working to inspire positive change in others, and give as many people as possible the second chance that he received. He has always prided himself on his work ethic, something he says his father instilled in him since he was young.

His continued work with Breakout Prison Outreach, even through the ups and downs of his own life, is a testament to that.

“This is my life sentence. I’m going to do this work until I fall down,” says Marez with conviction. “They’re going to bury me doing this work. I am totally committed.”

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