Martin Stagi never lost hope he'd get out of prison. A model inmate, the third-striker worked as a clerk seven days a week to pass the time, praying with other Jehovah's Witness inmates that his spotless record would one day earn him a parole.

At 26 years to life, his minimum stretch under California's three strikes law was nearly three times as long as he would have normally gotten for being convicted of drug possession for sale.

This week, his determination paid off, thanks to his clean sheet and California voters who approved three strikes reform. Stagi, now 50, was released after serving 15 years and nine months -- and he stepped out -- with the blessing of county prosecutors -- a changed man into a changed world.

He's not bitter about being locked up for so long.

"I wasn't a very good person when I went in," he said during an interview Thursday in his lawyer's office. "I was doing drugs and selling drugs, with no consideration to other people -- poisoning them -- and no consideration to my wife. It took this to learn a lot about myself."

When Stagi was sentenced, Bill Clinton was president. Gas cost $1.22 a gallon. People relied on dial-up, not broadband.

Now, "everybody has a cellphone," he said, including his 10 grandchildren, whom he met for the first time Wednesday. Even the kids sat around playing with their devices, he said, his obsidian eyes widening and a grin on his face. "I don't know nothing about the Internet."

Handful released

Only about a dozen people have been released since the Nov. 6 election, when 69.3 percent of California voters approved Proposition 36. In Santa Clara County, the measure garnered even more support -- 75.7 percent.

The law had originally called for sentences of at least 25 years to life for felons convicted of any third felony. The first two strikes had to be serious or violent crimes. All of Stagi's strikes stem from the same incident; the first two strikes were assaults.

The new law prohibits judges from imposing a life sentence on most repeat offenders who commit minor crimes. But it also includes a provision that could result in an early release or shorter sentence for up to 3,000 inmates like Stagi -- as long as a judge finds they don't pose a serious risk to public safety.

In Stagi's case, a veteran prison official with 28 years experience highly recommended his release, saying he'd never encountered an inmate who deserved it as much.

Stagi is keenly aware that he's lucky to get a second chance.

"There are some redeemable people in prison," adding that he doesn't want to ruin their chances for early release. "Myself and the other few (who've been released so far), we have to be a type of role model."

Family and food

Stagi credits his supportive family with helping him get through the ordeal.

His 10-year-old granddaughter wrote him sweet letters. His ex-wife, who remained a good friend, had a phone line installed in her house just so he could call collect -- at a cost to the family of $150-$160 a month.

An electrician, Stagi could easily pay them back, if he gets a job. All he has is $200 in "gate money" he got when he left prison and a couple hundred he saved by working for 32 cents an hour. Like many of the third-strikers who will be getting out, he's not eligible for any rehabilitative or transitional services because he served too much time under his recalculated sentence to be on parole.

On the day of his release, his family made a special show of caring. Wednesday, a caravan of 15 relatives drove 152 miles to pick him up at Pleasant Valley in Coalinga. His son Matthew, now 26, was perhaps the most excited. He was 10 when his dad left, and he worshipped him.

"He said to be there at 6:30 in the morning," Matthew said, "and I was there at 2:30."

The family began getting out of the cars to greet their long-lost relative, but were shooed back in by prison guards. Once Stagi climbed in, they pulled over at the first gas station, piled out and hugged him.

Stagi's last meal behind bars was "some kind of red gravy and chicken" mix that looked like slop. Twenty-four hours later, he was savoring homemade ceviche at a family celebration in San Jose.

It was a welcome change after more than 15 years of shoveling down food behind bars, where the guards try to move people as fast as possible through their meals, Stagi said.

"You got to be quick about it (in prison)," he said. "I was finally able to sit down and relax, eat and kick back."

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.