Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS (Ep 10)
“Putting in work”
Edited and photographed by David William Reeve
Editor’s note: This is Part 10 of “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” — an oral history of life inside California’s most notorious juvenile prison. Youth Training School (known formally as Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility) had a reputation for mayhem, violence and murder that earned it the name Gladiator School. It closed in 2010. Juveniles were hardened for survival at YTS, only to be returned to the streets.
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 relays and respects their stories: Juvie told by those who were there.
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.
"Putting in work”
Pico Rivera, 1992. A lot of people were dying. The gang violence was high. All these gang movies were coming out: American Me, Colors, Blood in Blood Out. These movies kind of promoted gang violence.
Boyz n the Hood. It was being glamorized.
Everybody in the hood wanted to be a gangster. Everybody wanted to be down. Everybody wanted to put in work — or go to prison. I saw my homeboys coming out, and they were all healthy, tan, and tatted. They would talk about prison like it was the place to be. At 14 years old, I’m thinking, man, that’s like a graduation for me! I want to go one day. I wanted to go upstate because they made it look like it was so good.
I think my generation was the last to wear hairnets and beanies; we slicked our hair back with Tres Flores and creased our pants. We took pride in our uniform. We would take 2 or 3 hours to get ready, creasing our stuff down with hairspray because we didn’t have starch, just to get that sharp look. Our shoes would be clean. Everything would be clean from our heads to our toes. We’d be suited and booted, ready for whatever the night had to bring. All you had to do was get ready, and we’d find something to get into. We’d find cars, girls, homeboys; we’d end up in a garage somewhere partying — that was the way it was back then. It was fun, to be honest. The culture was new to us. When you take on a gangbanging mentality, not only does your talk change, but your walk changes, your music changes, your surroundings change — it’s a whole different culture: gangbanging.
At the apartment I lived in, we went from being innocent little kids to being stone-cold gangsters. We took over The Rivera Villa. Cops were afraid to go in because they knew we were 50–60 deep at times. We were a bunch of youngsters trying to make a name for ourselves and trying to put our neighborhood on the map. My gang was Rivera13 Viejo. Back then, we had our enemies, like Pico Nuevo and Canta Ranas.
I had this girlfriend who was one of the prettiest girls in Pico Rivera. She was on the cover of Street Beat Magazine and liked going to parties. She was my first love, but we started having tension, fighting, and arguing. Her attention was going to other places, and I didn’t like it. I was insecure about myself and was jealous — a typical youngster.
I started hanging around with some of my homeboys instead. One of them was a year older than me. He was a knucklehead. He liked drugs and used to party a lot. He was just spontaneous, in a crazy way. I remember the first time we actually did something when we were riding in a stolen 4X4 truck in Victorville. On the way back to Pico Rivera, we pulled over at an In & Out Burger. There were about ten or twelve of my homeboys, all in one truck. He goes:
“Hey, come here, Lazy. Follow me.”
I followed him, and one of my other homeboys was behind us. We walked up to this man in a Camaro or Firebird … some fast car. He was enjoying his food right there.
“You got to get out of the car, homie.” We were gonna carjack him right there.
It kind of took him by surprise. He got out, and we were trying to start his car, asking, “Hey, how do you put it into gear?”
That was the first G-ride that we got. A strongarm carjack, or whatever you want to call. We took it.
After that, it was on. It seemed to spark something in our heads. We intimidated people. We scared them. I’m not proud of it, but it was something that we did, and it’s part of my story. We went on a spree. We started robbing liquor stores like crazy and pulling people out of their cars in traffic. We followed people that had nice cars or cars that we wanted, just taking them at gunpoint.
We did that for 3 or 4 months straight. Then we’d go put in work on our enemies.
I was the one who knew how to drive and get away from the cops. My homeboys were the shooters. I remember we pulled up to the AM/PM on Downey Road one time. I would pretend I was filling gas. My homeboy T — — was sitting in the back seat. S — — — and S — — — — were inside the liquor store, robbing the guy at gunpoint. S — — — was a little guy, and he’d jump on the counter. Stranger was behind the guy with a gun to his head, holding him.
Then a cop pulled in.
“There’s a cop right there,” I said to T — — .
I knew that once my homeboys came out of that liquor store and they saw this cop pulling up, they were going to start shooting at him. We had already decided that if the cops got us, we’d have a shoot out with them and do whatever it took to getaway.
T — — said, “Let’s leave, let’s leave.” He was looking out for himself.
It was only 40 seconds, but it felt like hours. I don’t know why, but the cop slowly reversed and took off. It was crazy like God knew it wasn’t time for that. We looked at each other with a sigh of relief, jumped on the 60 freeway, and took off.
We wanted to put in work on our enemies but only had a .22 and a couple of bullets. We shot them up, but from what I heard later, a bullet went through this guy’s jacket and didn’t even hit them. As we took off, they jumped in their car and started following us. They’re chasing us down a street called Washington, the borderline of our neighborhoods.
We’re at the stoplight, waiting. I look in my rearview mirror, and a guy is coming up the side of the car. I can see that he has a gun pointing down into the car at us. The guy started shooting all of our windows out. I told my homies to get down, and they did. I just punched the gas.
One day, my homeboys picked me up and took me back to my neighborhood, to the park. I had a bullet wound in my arm. I had stitches on my hand. I even got shot in the leg because my homeboy was playing with the gun in the back seat of a stolen car. So, I’m all injured. My homies were scared to be kicking it with me. They knew that I was on the run and they knew that I was putting in so much work. I would challenge them:
“You guys just want to sit here and be pretty all day or go to war right now!”
They were scared and didn’t want to go. They just wanted to be sitting at the park all day looking cute. My mentality wasn’t like that.
I ended up hurting myself by hanging around with my homeboys. It was self-inflicted because the ones that I hung around with ended up being the craziest. That’s when we made up our own name. We called ourselves “Intocables” from Pico Rivera. In English, “Intocables” means “Untouchable.”
But sooner or later, everything comes to an end. I was chilling in the front of the park by a phone booth. This girl named D — — — comes up to me and says: “They’re telling everybody to leave the park because somebody got shot, and they’re going to come to retaliate right now. Everybody needs to clear the park!”
From out of nowhere, cops swarm the park. I turned and started running. They handcuffed me, and they put me in the cop car. I didn’t have a gun on me. I didn’t even know what they were going to charge me with. I didn’t know what they had on me.
My cases were attempted murder and three carjackings. They sent me to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. I was playing basketball on the gym floor, and this black dude went for a layup, and I went to block him. I guess my elbow hit the top of his head trying to go for the ball. He didn’t like that. He’s talking under his breath. I turn to face him because I’m hearing him talk.
He was already in full motion, swinging on me. So when I turned around, he hit me in my jaw. I felt the impact and went back kind of like, Whoa.
When I gathered myself, I said, this fool just hit me right now. I put my hands up to start fighting him, but I realized that my jaw had been broken.
I didn’t care. I kept fighting, but the staff came right away to break it up. They took me to the infirmary. I told the nurse:
“Hey, my jaw got broken.”
“You’re going to have to wait, sit down!” then “Oh, my gosh,” She saw my jaw hanging and started panicking. She realized that it was serious. They shipped me to General Hospital, the 13th floor, where they keep the inmates. They couldn’t work on me at that time because I was a juvenile.
They put a piece of wire between my teeth to hold my jaw in place until they talked to my parents. My face swelled up like the elephant man. I couldn’t even recognize myself.
“We can put a plate in there, and that way, your jaw won’t be fragile or won’t get broken again,” the doctor said.
“Hell yeah, put the plate in there because I’ve barely started doing my time. I’m going to get into a lot more fights!”
They screwed a plate into my jaw. I still don’t feel anything in my jaw, and my smile is crooked, but my jaw never got broken again.
I was going back to Norwalk to get ready to start doing time in Youth Authority. I didn’t have any money — I was broke. There was an Asian guy, and I go, “you got change for ten?”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” and he pulled his money. I snatched $100 out of his hand because that’s how I was, just in survival mode. That’s the way it was in there. I robbed him right before I caught the chain to YA in Norwalk.
I’m not proud of that, but I’m just saying that’s the way it was in there.
“We need somebody to hit this dude,” someone said.
I raised my hand to go hit this dude right away, and I didn’t even know the situation. I didn’t care. I didn’t even ask.
“All right, I’m 18 years old. I’ll do it,” I said.
“We’re going to give you a shank and we want you to hit him.” They told me to hit him during chow.
I remember I had the shank in my hand and I remember sitting at the gates, and fear started hitting me. All kinds of stuff started going into my mind, like, what are you about to do? You’re looking at a life term already, and you’re about to hit this dude and get another case? I remember saying a prayer. I found out who the guy was. I actually knew the guy. I told God, I don’t want to do this. Somehow, someway, make it to where this doesn’t happen.
The loudspeaker: “Chow time, five minutes…”
I’m standing by the gates getting ready, but they never racked the gates! The gates never opened. I was just in shock. I was like, what the heck? Later my homeboy comes to my cell.
“Hey, Lazy, I heard you raised your hand,” he said.
“Yeah, I did.”
“You’re not going to do it,” he said. “Give me the shank. I’m going to do it for you.”
The dude just so happened to be his bunky, so he had to do it instead. He took the shank from me and tried to stab the guy in the neck, but the metal shank bent when it hit his neckbone.
I prayed for that dude, man. After that, I was like, I’m just going to do my time to get up out of here. That’s when I got transferred back to Norwalk SRCC, then transferred to YTS Chino — Gladiator School.
I first heard about Gladiator School when I was in juvenile hall, because a lot of the guys were looking at doing time at YTS. I heard that it was a prison. Basically, it was a prison for youngsters.
I pulled up to YTS in 1993. I saw the barbed wire, the fences, the tower. I remember being walked across the yard, going into Unit AB, and getting put into my cell. We were on lockdown because some kid hanged himself.
I went to building GH cell H6 and looked inside. I could see a Bible on the table, and the room looked really nice. It looked clean. I looked at the picture that was on the table, and I realized I knew this guy. It was P — — from EastLA13. I knew this dude from the streets. Our neighborhoods got along, so we were cool.
He came back, and we hugged. I was glad to be his bunky. We’re both glad.
I could sense something different about him, and I didn’t know what it was. He just told me, “I gave myself to the Lord, man; I’m a Christian now.”
It wasn’t like you were just in your cell all the time. We were always doing something there. I didn’t have my GED or high school diploma, so I had to go to school, but I also had to have a trade. There were six different periods, and I would go to school for most of the time, and they put me in welding for my 6th period.
I got my high school diploma. I wanted to start attending college and got a job in the kitchen. I would get up early, at 3:30 in the morning to deliver food in these carts.
It wasn’t very long before P — — started rubbing off on me. I saw that he had peace around him. He was really content and serious about his faith.
He was brought up in the faith by his mom. She was always praying for him. He had the seed in him to be a man of God.
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.
When I got there, it was a spark, and that spark turned into a flame. All of a sudden, people started converting over to Christianity. There was also a Muslim movement at that time. Muslims were running pretty deep at that time, but Christians were just ridiculous. We got so big that they even started having a meeting in the auditorium.
I was really good at ping pong. The staff would pull me out to play. Chaplain Jackson, the Protestant Chaplain at the time, would call me out to play chess with him — I was pretty good at chess. I had favor there, man. I was doing my time, programming. God just poured His spirit across that institution.
Chaplain Jackson retired, and we got a chaplain named Reverend Leonard Wilson-Banks. Right away, Banks caught the movement going on and brought a second wind. God used him to open up doors. We started having all kinds of special guests coming in from outside; TV evangelists started coming to YTS to preach in the auditorium because they could see that a movement of God was going on.
Being able to go to YTS, man, I started reading and educating myself. I used to stay up late at night reading my Word. I started attending Bible College. I got so many certificates. I started working out there, man. I started lifting weights. Everything was positive for me.
I remember one time someone got hold of some PCP. They were smoking it in their cell. I don’t know how they didn’t get caught. Staff was bringing in bottles of liquor. We were in a privileged unit, so the staff would bring their workers liquor. I remember one of my bunkies had a bottle of liquor brought into our cell.
I’d be cool with all the staff. I remember this one time, this youth counselor came in, and she was buying stuff from the vending machine. I helped her because her snack got stuck in the machine, and I went to shake it loose, and she said thank you. Her name was Ms. Ineasie Baker. She stood out to me. She wasn’t a small woman — probably was around five-six, five-seven. She was kind of thick with short hair. She looked like a black lady, not too old. She was cool.
One Friday night, I went to use the phone. Now, one thing about doing time and being in cells, you would always hear noises coming from the cells — usually, somebody fighting. This particular time I heard it, but it was coming from downstairs. I didn’t think anything of it, but it seemed to go on for a little bit. Come Saturday, I’m getting ready to work in the visiting center, but they never opened the visiting hall. Nobody came in. They sent us back to our units. Lockdown.
Sunday comes around, and we’re chilling in our room watching TV. We put on channel 7, and they’re having a segment on YTS Chino. They’re saying that this counselor is coming up missing and they can’t find her. It’s Ms. Baker, the lady I had seen at the vending machine a couple of times. They have a picture of her, and they’re saying that her car was still in the parking lot. She never left the institution.
They found her body at the city dump a couple of days later. The guy who killed her had stuffed her into a trash can. His name was James Ferris, a white boy. She didn’t like him; he didn’t like her. She would always try to get him fired, and he’d always get his job back. She was killed on a Friday, and they didn’t find her body until Sunday or Monday. He was an M number, meaning he would eventually go upstate.
I heard that she fought for her life, and he had scratches all over his face. I heard that he battery-packed her. He choked her out with a rope; I guess strangled her.
I think that’s who I had heard Friday when I was making a phone call, but I didn’t know. Nobody knew. I thought it was a fight. But when I went back and did the timing and everything, it was the same time that she was doing shift change. That’s why she took off her belt and her panic button. I was upstairs using the phone, so I actually heard her fighting for her life, you know what I mean?
He stuffed her into the trash can, probably folded her in half. He probably put trash bags on top, then rolled her out in the trash cart.
At the same time God was working — the Devil was working too.
I had always wanted to get tattooed since I was 12 years old. Me and my brother would mess around with the needle and thread. He put his name on his ankle. I’d put my name on my neck.
When I started doing time, I always wanted to get tattooed. Everybody wanted to be in a cell with the guys who were doing tattoos. I had good penmanship from writing letters. My bunky and I made our own tattoo machine right there in YTS. I would buy ink or get it from working in Arts and Crafts.
B — was my new bunky and wanted to get tattooed — some lettering on the inside of his biceps. One bicep read “Jesus,” and one read “Christ.” That was my first tattoo.
I let him tattoo on me. He did my last name across my back, “Morales.” I remember laying on the floor in the cell, and I had a little mirror to look under the door and see when the guard was coming. He didn’t know how to tattoo, but he did the outline for me. He put me in some excruciating pain because he tried to shade in the M. He turned my skin into hamburger meat.
I did my “LA” on my arm, and also put lettering across my stomach. I was just practicing, just trying to mess around. It was right there in a cell in YTS. That’s when I first started doing them. That’s where the seed was planted.
I got transferred to Soledad State Prison with only a couple of months left. I was supposed to parole on August 27th, 1997. I started meeting all the homies on the yard, including reuniting with P — — . I met this dude, C — — , from Norwalk — he was a tattoo artist.
One morning, ten of us are sitting on a bench in our yard, and this Norteño comes up to one of the homies. This was our yard — a Sureños yard. We could wear our colors, blue or red, on that yard, but we didn’t allow Norteños to wear their colors on our yard. We didn’t even allow them to take their shirts off.
We get surrounded by Norteños, and my homie C — — throws the first punch. Now we’re fighting. I got two guys on me. All the COs start blowing their whistles. They’re telling us, “Stop, stop.” We hear a boom! — it’s the gun tower. He’s shooting because that’s what they do when there’s a riot. There are no warning shots.
I hit the ground, and they took me to the hole with 90 days added to my time.
While I’m doing time in the hole, C — — from Norwalk is above me. I’m telling him, “Hey, I want to start drawing.” Send me some patterns, some images, some outlines. I used to stay at my little table by the bars for 12 to 14 hours a day, just shading, practicing with the pen. I would just do cartoon characters. Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, you know what I mean? The next day, repeat: I work out, do 1000 push-ups, do 300 dips. I did that like four or five times a day because there’s nothing else to do.
I went to Susanville, 14 hours away near the Oregon border. I had homeboys that were on the yard, and they helped me. We all ended up getting in the same dorm, and they would let me tattoo, so I started practicing on them. They gave me a job as a graphic design artist, designing logos for the cops or the firemen. I had a lot of access to screen printing equipment.
There was an artist there with me named L — — from Chino — he was an awesome artist. He would draw for the cops, and they would pay him. He would do big sketches, portraits, a battleship with the ocean and the sky. He gave me a lot of pointers, a lot of tips on art. I would watch him tattoo. He did some pieces on me, as a matter of fact, a really cool white boy. Me and him got really close, so I ended up doing the rest of my time there.
When I was paroled, I brought one of my tattoo machines home with me. My brothers wanted me to start tattooing them with a single needle, like I did in prison.
I had my ink supply, my power supply, and now I had my needle and my homemade machine in a little gray box. I went to a tattoo party, and this guy Barney was in the next room already tattooing. I could hear his machine really loud.
I felt discouraged because here I am with my homemade stuff working on this girl, and she’s like, “It’s okay.”
“You know what? Can we just do this later?”
She’s trying to make me feel good about a cover-up of a heart.
“I don’t want to do this here. Can you just introduce me to Barney? I want to meet him,” and she’s like, yeah, for sure.
Barney was an older dude, and he was really cool.
“Do you think you can help me buy some professional equipment?” I asked. “You think that you could take me, man? I really want to do it. I just got out doing prison time. I did seven years. I want to get into tattooing, man.”
Barney’s like, “Hell, yeah. I’ll help you, man. I don’t even trip, man. I got you.”
I would pick him up on the weekends, and we go do tattoo parties everywhere. We went all over the place. We would end up in some crazy places and some crazy cities. All kinds of gangsters there. Sometimes we end up with casual people, different ethnicities. Barney started showing me the game because back then, it wasn’t social media. There was no social media. Everything was word-of-mouth or your business card or pagers. I’d have a pager with me.
As time went on, he would get drunk and get sloppy. People wouldn’t want him to tattoo on them. They start coming to me. I always felt bad because I felt like I was taking his business.
Tattoo conventions opened up a whole other door because now I’m meeting all these other artists that are just like me — young Chicanos, and they’re trying to make a name for themselves. I decided to call the name of my tattoo business “Untouchable.” I took the negative that I started in my neighborhood as “Intocables” and I changed it to English to “Untouchable.” But now, it was a positive thing because it had to do with my business, my career.
I started doing shows in San Francisco and Texas. Me and one of my guys that I trained, Joey, were going to Houston. I did a tattoo on his throat right above his neckline with my name, “Untouchable.” That’s how committed he was to me. We ended up winning an award for that — first place for lettering. I was addicted. I just wanted to submit all my work to tattoo competitions. I wanted to go to all the conventions. I traveled to tattoo conventions in New York and Hawaii. I even got a chance to go to Rome, where I went to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica.
I’ll never forget my time in YTS. Even though I was incarcerated physically, spiritually, and mentally — I was set free when I got there. Somebody killed himself when I arrived, and somebody was murdered. It was a treacherous and violent place. But even in that darkness, He was still able to shine a light down on us when we were there.
Jaime Morales, aka Lazy, tattoos under the name “Mister Untouchable” from his Untouchable studio in Southern California. He has been tattooing for 22 years, specializing in black and grey art and portraits. He is widely considered an elite artist and cultural icon in the tattoo community. He owns a ’64 Impala and was recently featured on Low Rider Magazine. His “Mister Untouchable” lifestyle brand now includes a clothing line and party bus rental. He spent more than 9 years in prisons from ages 14–25 including time in Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, Youth Trianing School, Soledad State Prison, and Susanville Correctional Center. Twice he avoided a life sentence. He has four daughters and a granddaughter. You can find him on Instagram as Mister_Untouchable and Snapchat is untouchable_laz.
Want to read more? “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” is a series on Vantage:
“The Closing of California’s Most Violent Juvenile Prison”
“We couldn’t show fear”
“Remember what they taught us?”
“How soon will I know?”
“The only way out”
“We were not afraid to die”
“That Hell they put me in”
“Lost in the Halls”
“Putting in work”
“The last watch”
“The white horse”
David William Reeve is an independent writer and photographer who documents the lives of juveniles at risk. Visit davidreeve.net for more.
Contact: davidwilliamreeve (at) gmail (dot) com