One weekend in 2006 resulted in Daniel Robinson facing four life sentences without the possibility of parole, plus 160 years.
The San Fernando Valley native was charged with four counts of kidnap for ransom, kidnapping with the use of a firearm and assault with a deadly weapon. Not wanting to gamble with his life by going to trial, Robinson took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 14 years and four months in prison with one strike.
He was 17 years old when he was arrested, sentenced as an adult and imprisoned at 19.
A scared and insecure teenager whose actions were the culmination of partying and drug abuse, Robinson vowed not to let the events of one weekend define and encompass him as a person. During his incarceration, he earned his GED diploma, participated in rehabilitative and cognitive behavior programs, earned four associate degrees and received one incarcerated student scholarship.
In 2014, Robinson was transferred to the California City Correctional Facility where Marley’s Mutts would debut its Pawsitive Change Prison Program 2 ½ years later.
Robinson went through the extensive application process, which included an essay and interviews with prison officials and Marley’s Mutts staff, and was accepted into the program, but it was a single observation from Marley’s Mutts founder Zach Skow that stuck with him.
“You would make a good leader,” Skow told him.
See the Positive, Be the Change
Pawsitive Change was an idea that Marley’s Mutts was interested in since its founding 10 years ago.
The progressive and intensive rehabilitation program that matches death row dogs with inmates was launched in 2016 and aims to reduce inmate recidivism by providing viable skills for when they are released while rehabilitating dogs for adoption.
Over the course of 14 weeks, inmates work closely with their assigned dogs, training for 13 hours a day in the pod and in the yard, a unique aspect of the program.
“Our goal is multidimensional,” Skow said. “There’s clearly a vocational aspect. We’re trying to give them options for when they get out so that they don’t become a recidivism statistic.”
Skow said 85 percent of violent offenders end up back in prison within three years of release and cost taxpayers $50,000 to $60,000 per year to house.
The program also incorporates substance abuse and emotional awareness components while reintroducing a human element to the lives of men who have been forced to disconnect from their feelings as they prepare to re-enter society.
“These guys haven’t had their humanity intact,” Skow said. “As a feeling, emotional, loving, respectful guy, I can help restore humanity to a human being. What we were able to create is a safe space within that prison environment where we could talk about things and where we could have each other’s back and we could shake hands and we could hug and we could do all these things that you don’t necessarily see in prison.”
The Leader of the Pack
It didn’t take long for Robinson to realize that the Pawsitive Change Prison Program wasn’t going to be a cakewalk.
In order to connect with the dogs, he had to change the mindset that he was forced to alter to survive in a prison setting. Not only did he have to reconnect and be aware of his emotions, he had to regain his patience, confidence and ability to trust others again.
“The bond between the inmates and the dogs is because they really could relate to one another,” Skow said. “I use the term ‘throwaway human.’ I always felt like a throwaway human, like I wasn’t worthy of much, and to see these guys relate to the dogs over that exact feeling – not having a family, being forgotten, being out of sight, out of mind – it was really cool to watch the parallels develop.”
Robinson went through the program four times, working with a number of dogs whom he helped find forever homes while leaving a lasting impression on their trainer.
“The lessons that they teach us … we don’t realize that it’s happening when it’s happening,” he said. “Some things you learn are patience and confidence. I had to step into that leadership role – I had to be aware that I needed to be more than just an insecure kid.”
With the passing of Proposition 57 in 2016, Robinson was able to earn time off his sentence.
In November 2018, he opened Doggy Jitsu, a dog training and rehabilitation business based in Los Angeles where he instills discipline in dogs while teaching owners to step into leadership roles.
“It rehabilitates dogs but trains people,” he said.
It’s a formula that closely mirrors the Pawsitive Change program that transformed his life and whose name is so fitting in that it allows participants to see the positives in a life that was void of it and helps them realize that change is possible.
“It doesn’t necessarily undo what I did, but it shows that when people recognize the errors of their ways and they work in a positive direction, it’s not so cut and dry that once you mess up, you’re no good anymore,” the 30-year-old said. “Just because that pit bull bit somebody doesn’t mean they’re a violent creature.
“It’s understanding that confinement is just on your body. You don’t have to be confined in your mind or in your heart. Understanding the impermanence of that confinement – that it’s not forever – and making the wise choices that you don’t end up back in the same position.”