By Alton Pitre
I was born while my mother was in jail. Immediately, my grandmother took me in to her home, as she did with three other of my mom’s six kids. My mother was unable to care for us due to her drug use.
My childhood was spent in the wild hood of “The Jungles,” a neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, off of Crenshaw Blvd. Growing up in the Crenshaw area was heart-hardening even with the blessing of my loving grandmother as my primary care taker.
For the first 10 years of my life, my grandmother, Mama Nechie, did an excellent job of keeping me sheltered from the streets, although the gang life literally surrounded us. I excelled in my school courses and spent most of my days playing basketball at the YMCA down the street.
In junior high, I was first introduced to the dangers and thrills of the gang life. Fast forward to the game-changing era of my high school years: I now had a moniker and a street reputation, police knew me on a first-name basis, the thugs were tougher and the consequences of my affiliation were riskier than ever. In 12th grade I was cut from the varsity basketball team. Afternoons and evenings that would have been occupied with basketball became idle time that was soon given over to the streets.
It seemed as if every time I looked up, I was repeatedly getting stopped or arrested by the same officers for the “gang injunction crime” of simply being with or around another documented gang member in the vicinity of our gang territory. These members were my neighbors and the territory was where I lived.
Then the inevitable happened. I was arrested at the age of 18, about two months before my high school graduation, for a robbery that I did not commit. I spent a year and a half in jail between that first court hearing and being set free. Usually I would say that I was locked up for nothing because I was innocent of the crime, but that is not so because I was guilty of the lifestyle.
While I was locked up I found an organization called InsideOUT Writers (IOW) — or shall I say IOW found me? IOW is a nonprofit organization that conducts weekly creative writing classes in all three juvenile halls of Los Angeles County, in hopes of reducing the recidivism rate among these at-risk youth. Attending these classes reignited my love for writing, which helped me to positively self-vent. IOW kept me out of trouble while locked up because I would purposely do well just to continue these 90-minute classes.
Directly following my release, Matthew Mizel, one of my IOW teachers, brought me to the office where I was greeted with warm and welcoming hands. I then joined IOW’s Alumni Program, a re-entry program specifically for IOW students that have been released from jail.
Being a part of the Alumni Program after my release was truly a blessing from God. IOW showed me how to apply for college and financial aid and make a resume. IOW even helped me with the little things like getting a California I.D. and Social Security card. Not to mention the continuance of the weekly writing classes. Through IOW, I have attended many events. I have had the honor to speak to youth in juvenile halls, potential donors at fundraisers and future criminal justice students on college campuses, along with advocating to the masses on panels at national conferences. I am always honored to tell my personal story as well as the great works of the program. Through networking, I have met many good people who have sometimes granted me new opportunities.
I have been free for three years now, and that lifestyle is behind me, although I still reside in the same neighborhood. I work for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, and I work with kids in the after school program coaching basketball. I also attend Los Angeles Valley College studying journalism and writing for the school’s newspaper. I am an advocate for juvenile justice, and everyday I pursue my road to success in a positive manner. Anytime I have a setback, the people at IOW are always there to keep me on track providing moral support and/or resources.
IOW came to me at a crucial moment in my life. This was very fortunate because not every kid coming home from being locked up is lucky enough to have access to such a wonderful program that works to renovate our deconstructed and ill-labeled lives. IOW helped to make this transition very easy for me. Programs like IOW are essential for ALL persons returning home from incarceration. There is nothing like having a family who cares for you, no matter your past. All alumni have been formerly incarcerated, but you probably could not tell based on our unbelievable transformations. If it were not for IOW, I can surely say I would not be where I am today.
Previously published on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s website (jjie.org)