Edited and photographed by David Reeve
Welcome to a new series of difficult but important testimony. “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” is an oral history of life inside California’s most notorious juvenile prison. Closed in 2010, Youth Training School (also known as Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility) had a reputation for mayhem, violence, and murder that earned it the name Gladiator School. It was there that minors would harden themselves for survival, only to be returned to the streets — more troubled and volatile than when they arrived.
Since publishing the story The Closing of California’s Most Violent Juvenile Prison, survivors of YTS have come forward to tell stories of daily life inside. This series will relay and respect their stories: Juvie told by the ones who were there. …
Gladiator School — episode 1
“The Closing of California’s Most Violent Juvenile Prison”
This first episode depicts the Heman G. Stark Juvenile Prison, previously known as YTS or Youth Training School, as it stands today, years after it was closed by the State of California. The prison was closed in 2010 when the State had no other solution for the violence and mayhem there; a State Attorney called it “an especially horrible place” and hundreds of workers lost their jobs.
Gladiator School — episode 2
“We couldn’t show fear”
In this episode, Chris (aka Savage) is sent to The Hole for hiding a shank under his mattress, when the prison suddenly breaks out into riot.
“The only types of people that you find in the different joints are victims or victimizers. I had made up my mind many years before, I was not going to be a victim. Nobody’s victim. And that meant there were no rules. There was no right or wrong. There was I’m alive and staying alive, or the opposite.”
Gladiator School — episode 3
“Remember what they taught us?”
In this episode, Jeff (aka Huerito) is short timing when he leaves the comfort of Ventura Youth Correctional Facility to arrive at Fire Camp.
“My Dad bought me anything I wanted. If I wanted to buy beer, I could go to the bar and put it on his tab. It became a party house. He told me whenever you’re drunk, but you still want to drink, pour your beer out and put water in it. We had a party later and I poured my beer out. I was sipping on water and then one of my homeboys says, “Let’s go. Let’s steal a car.”
Gladiator School — episode 4
“How soon will I know?
In this episode, John (aka Cool Breeze) returns to YTS years after his incarceration to find employment there as a schoolteacher.
“My first day was going through the orientation process. They called me down to the security office and issued me a full set of keys for the institution. I got those keys on my belt and felt, my god, how things have changed. I went into my classroom and was looking at all these guys in white t-shirts and jeans. I wanted to show them how to make life work for them like I had done. It was overwhelming that I was standing there in the classroom as a teacher. It took me a while to come to terms with this and the whole evolution that allowed this to happen.
I said to them, “Ten years ago I was sitting in the same place you are sitting.”
Gladiator School — episode 5
“The only way out”
In this episode, Adrián (not his real name) ascends the ranks of La Eme — The Mexican Mafia — as he trades violence as currency in seeking shelter from the swelling corruption he witnesses within the California Youth Authority.
“An inmate named Sam was a real problem. He bothered some people. I went to my room and got a toothbrush, put a razor blade on the toothbrush, and went to the laundry room where Sam was. I did not want to hurt this guy. I only cut him one time by his ear. I sliced him.
He was bleeding so much they thought I sliced his throat. They shot me with this rubber bullet that knocked me to the floor then took me to the hole. This is where the nightmare begins.”
Gladiator School — episode 6
“We were not afraid to die”
In this episode, Chris, aka “Child” defends his Echo Park neighborhood as a member of the Westside Crazies, where ambush-style gun battles erupt from slow-passing cars and gang affiliations define enemies and allies on the street — and in prison.
“A beef had started with Echo Park. Fresh war. A Volkswagen passes by slowly, then takes off. It came back and around and stopped, then the shooting started. We get into a gun battle. I realized I got hit. My buddy got hit, too. A bullet went through the side of my face then hit my friend in the stomach, but the bullet didn’t penetrate him. We took off and were hanging out inside an apartment building nearby.
After the cops leave, I heard the car come back a second time… the Volkswagen again.
“Give me the gun,” I said to my buddy. He gave me a .38 and I hid between two cars. I got the gun. And here comes the Volkswagen.
Gladiator School — episode 7
“The Hell they put me in”
In this episode, Bruce Lisker is accused of an unimaginable crime that casts him from the safety of his suburban Sherman Oaks home into a nightmarish new reality and the struggle to survive Gladiator School.
“My mom was covered in blood. She had two knives stuck in her back. I just lost it. I couldn’t register that what I was seeing was true. I was terror-stricken; not even there. I fell to my knees beside her and could see she was still breathing. I took the knives out of her back, called for help, then called my Dad.”
Gladiator School — episode 8
In this episode, 14-year old Luis Ortega arrives in Los Angeles, lonely and vulnerable, before looking to South Central’s notorious 38th Street Gang for protection. When his desire to fit in with the gang leads to murder, Luis sheds his need for protection by fighting for survival in YTS.
“When members of the gang came out of jail, we always looked up to them. There was an older guy named Wino who had recently come out of YTS. He looked tough. He told us he wanted to get back at some guys he had trouble with at YTS. I felt I needed to go along to get the older gang members’ approval.
“Let’s go get them,” Wino said.”
Gladiator School — episode 9
“Lost in the Halls”
In this episode, Joseph Copeland lurks in the backstreets of Torrance — a middle-class beach city on California’s Southern Coast. It’s here that the 15-year old begins his career of crime, accelerating through the ranks of local jails, juvies, camps, and rehabs, before earning a formal education in survival at YTS.
“I had friends, but I couldn’t relate to them. I wanted to do crime and gangster shit, and I didn’t know why. I got along with gangsters better than people that were my friends. I didn’t have any life skills or money. I didn’t want to work. It was so hard working. One minute, I was a kid, then I did all this jail time, and I was back on the streets expected to perform as an adult!”
Gladiator School — episode 10
“Putting in work”
In this episode, Jaime Morales is an ambitious youngster making a name for himself on the streets of South East LA. They called him “Lazy,” but he is anything but that — embarking on a spree of strongarm carjackings and robberies that land him in YTS, where he sparks a religious revival during the prison’s darkest hours.
“YTS was what you made it. Sometimes you get put in unpredictable circumstances. I started attending church, and it started changing. Something started happening with me. I started reading and educating myself on the Bible. This army of Men of God started rising up there. It went from a handful of us in that unit to 30, 40 of us. We got so big that the staff started letting us meet for Bible studies.”
Gladiator School — episode 11
“The last watch”
In this episode, David Sanchez, a 19-year old with few options in life, takes a job as a corrections officer at YTS, where the willingness to fight was the only experience needed. Working the graveyard shift, he becomes an unlikely father-figure to wards older than himself, as the facility faces closure from mounting costs and corruption.
“He gave me the paperwork — a basic state application that included a physical exam, a background investigation, and a medical exam. It was a job working for the California Youth Authority — part of the government, so there was a lot of forms to fill out and questions to answer.
The Captain had been with the department since YTS opened. He was a big guy, and he looked at me, a runner that weighed 129 pounds.
“You’re kind of small. Can you fight? You’re not a sissy, are you?
I looked at him, “Yeah, I can fight.”
“Okay, you’re hired.”
Gladiator School — episode 13
“The white horse”
In this episode, Remigio “Mike” Chavez, is one of 11 sleeping on the floor of his family’s crowded, single-bedroom apartment in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles — territory of the notorious 18th Street gang. He spends his days gazing from the apartment’s rooftop into the dream-like waters of a koi pond below. But as the dream fades, his nightmare begins, on a journey destined for YTS.
“At YTS, they gave us a piece of land near the gym to build an ancient sweat lodge, where we would sweat and pray and vocalize the traditions of many tribes. The sweat lodge became the church for people who wanted to self-identify as Native Americans or as indigenous people from anywhere. There were brothers there who were very Black but had a little Cherokee in them. They identified themselves as that, and we accepted them. If you said you were Indian, we believed you.”