When Arner Pitts wrote a letter to Cerritos College School Relations Coordinator Shirley Arceo, he didn't expect her to answer. But he hoped she would send him an application to the college.
Arceo did more than just answer Pitts' letter. She sent him a full packet of information about Cerritos College. Arner was overwhelmed.
That was more than ten years ago. Pitts was in prison, serving a five-year sentence. His letter to Shirley Arceo was one of the first steps he took in righting his life.
Now, having been paroled for several years, Pitts looks back at that time in his life and barely recognizes himself. In 2003, Pitts married, and a year later, he and wife closed escrow on brand new home. Together, they have a two-year-old daughter. In 2005, after attending Cerritos College for the past few years, Pitts received his associate's degree in business.
While attending community college as a part-time student, Pitts worked full time in residential real estate. He worked as a direct assistant to two real estate brokers, a loan officer and several real estate agents.
Arner says his creed is to be a provider for his family and to learn all that he can about his profession. In fall 2006, he transferred and began taking classes at Cal Poly Pomona as business major in finance and law. He plans to move gradually up the ladder in residential real estate.
In the span of ten years, Pitts managed to go from a street-tough thug to a rehabilitated member of society, working his way through school. But he had some help along the way. This is his story.
Pitts grew up in the North Long Beach area, attending school at Star King Elementary and Lindberg Junior High. He was headed for Long Beach Jordan High School when he turned to a life of delinquency.
The youngest of three siblings, Pitts grew up in a fairly stable home. Although his parents had divorced while he was young, his father was still involved in Pitts' life outside the home. Pitts says he "didn't really have an excuse" for his choice to join a gang. "It was the lure of fast money, women and attention," he says, "nothing else. It was peer pressure that pulled me to the streets."
Pitts' attraction to a criminal life began in seventh and eighth grade. He says that during that time, he led a double life; while he did well at school and never had a problem making friends, in reality, he had two sets of friends. And the deviant crowd was often more attractive to him.
"I liked school," Pitts explains, "and I always knew that what I was doing wasn't the right thing to do. But school at that time wasn't able to hold my attention."
Pitts says that he remembers feeling that he was in over his head, but that life in a gang meant always showing honor, allegiance and fearlessness to the "brotherhood" of the gang.
Through his teenage years, Pitts spent time in various correctional facilities for minors, including camps that provide at-risk youths with military-like structure to try to rehabilitate destructive habits. He had spent time at two of the three Juvenile Hall facilities in Los Angeles County. Finally, at age 18, Pitts was arrested a few hours after conducting an armed robbery and was placed in county jail.
That first night in jail, Pitts says he told himself, "There's no way I can leave here the same way that I came in." He knew that he had run his course as a "two-bit thug," and in his words, he needed to "change the way I thought and my outlook on life."
Originally, he faced 16 years behind bars, both as a result of his current charge and because of his juvenile record. But with support from his family, his father's attendance at all of his court appearances and through money provided by relatives to hire legal counsel, Pitts was offered a deal for a five-year prison sentence.
While incarcerated, Pitts stayed true to what he had told himself: "There's no way I can leave here the same way that I came in."
He immediately took steps toward change. While in the county jail awaiting sentencing, he started reading the newspaper every day. He worked on his vocabulary. He read a new book every six weeks. He listened to talk radio. He made a scrapbook of news articles he found interesting, highlighting words he didn't know and looking them up in a dictionary later. And he kept out of trouble, although it wasn't easy.
Arner was permanently transferred to California State Prison-Solano. "Once you get into prison, you can't just automatically disassociate yourself from gangs," Pitts says. "Everyone belongs to some kind of group or clique. Instead, you focus on educating yourself. You read a book; you read the newspaper. That keeps you out of a lot of riff-raff."
Arner says that his run-ins with trouble and gang members while in prison were minimal. In working to turn his life around, he faced pressure from other prisoners disliking him because they thought he had an "I'm better than you," attitude because he wanted to make a change in his life.
While serving his sentence, Pitts met a "lifer" named Ellis Williams. Pitts called him "Teach."
"Teach mentored me and told me specifically that the only way I was going to make it out of prison and make it on the street was to educate myself," Pitts says. "Teach always spoke profoundly, but not in a showy way. He really pushed me to learn to be articulate. He was 57, and I was 19."
Mr. Williams, Pitts emphasizes, deserves a lot of credit for his accomplishments, both in and out of prison.
"Teach is the one who kept me motivated, focused, out of trouble," Pitts explained. "He constantly put me to the test to better myself at every opportunity. He showed me how to study, introduced me to talk radio and told me that serving my term would not be easy. But he kept telling me to stay the course, enroll in college immediately following release, and that I would make it."
Pitts says that he still keeps in touch with Teach through letters from time to time. "A lot of what he said would happen did happen," Pitts says.
Pitts had received his GED diploma earlier while in CYA custody. While still serving his five-year sentence, six months prior to his release he came into possession of a Cerritos College business card in one of the prison classrooms. Shirley Arceo was the contact, which led to Pitts sending her his heartfelt letter and to his subsequently receiving application materials to the college.
After he was paroled from prison, Pitts enrolled at Cerritos College and began classes immediately. To help pay for his tuition and books, he got any job he could.
"Once you have a criminal record, a lot of doors get shut in your face, and understandably so," he explains. "I was able to get a job washing cars six days a week at a Cadillac dealership for $6.50 an hour."
But by that time, money did not matter to Pitts. His goal was to obtain employment.
"Any amount of money would do as long as it was an honest living," he says.
Little by little, step-by-step, in the five years since his release, Pitts has accomplished what many would find a nearly impossible task. He has rehabilitated himself. And he has established himself as a contributor to society.
Pitts' story is the stuff of Hollywood films. In fact, a brief documentary of his story appears as an added bonus DVD feature to the cable network FX's film "Redemption," starring Jamie Foxx. In addition, producers from the Black Hollywood Film and Education Resource Center recently contacted him. He was asked and agreed to moderate a documentary titled, "Roots of Destruction." The film centered around former and active gang members and the role of their parents in their lives.
Now, nearly every week, through his network of family and friends, Pitts receives requests to speak at school assemblies, counsel incarcerated youths or to share his story through a film interview or program.
"When I talk about my past and when I share my story, it's a reminder to me of how far I came," Pitts explains.
"I never want to go back to that place in my life. I want to be an example to young people that they don't want to go through what I've gone through. I tell them "This is not a place for your life."
Pitts says he believes that it isn't hard to walk away from a gang-oriented lifestyle.
"You just start doing the right thing," he says. "Just stand firm in your decision to do the right thing. Gang members don't like to waste their time with someone who isn't fully committed."
Pitts also says that family backgrounds or growing up in the inner city are not excuses for turning to a life of crime, either. In fact, he believes that unfortunate situations can be used as positive motivation toward hard work and discipline.
"A lot of at-risk kids feel trapped because of their socio-economic situation," he acknowledges. "I let them know that they're not trapped. They should use resources available to them, whatever those resources may be. Honestly, in some cases, there's more out there to help kids who are in trouble than for the kids who do the right thing."
After all, Pitts points out, America's society was built upon the principle of being able to start at a low level and work hard to achieve a higher place in life. And no one knows more about performing a 180-degree turn around better than Arner.
"If the kids I meet go on to be incarcerated or end up getting out and doing the same thing, I wouldn't feel that I have failed," he explains.
"It doesn't mean they can't still work hard to change and to achieve great things."
By becoming silent and not sharing his story of beating the odds through hard work, education and job skills, Pitts says, "that's when I will have failed." He knows that he is blessed and that his life is not the norm, but rather the exception. His goal is to influence young people so that his exceptional experience 228becomes the norm one child at a time."
If he had not gone to prison, would Pitts have outgrown his allegiance to a gang and his life of crime?
"No, I don't think so," he says. "However, considering that I did go to prison, look at what I have done and want to do. Everything happens for a reason. I have already hit rock bottom; therefore, the only place or direction from here that I can go and will one day reach, is the top."
For more information about the Cerritos College Office of School Relations, please visit www.cerritos.edu/sr or contact Shirley Arceo, coordinator of school relations at (562) 860-2451 ext. 2129.