Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS (Ep 11)
“The last watch”
Edited and photographed by David William Reeve
Editor’s note: This is Part 11 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, 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.
“The last watch”
“Hey, don’t I know you?”
I would run into an ex-ward in my personal life — sometimes at the grocery store, movie theater, or mall. It would always be the same interaction: I wouldn’t recognize him, but he would recognize me.
“Where do you live because you look familiar?”
At that point, I pretty much knew where things were going.
“Well, you know, I’m around…”
Then he would lean in and say, “Hey, you work at YTS, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I work at YTS.”
And then, usually, I’d get a smile, and he’d say, “Do you remember me? I was locked up on your unit. Do you remember me?
They wanted to show me that they were not that same guy that they were at YTS. It was just business.
“I’m doing good. I’m staying out of trouble. I got a job, a wife, a kid.”
1985. I grew up just a regular guy from Colton, California; I didn’t have any big plans. I hadn’t figured anything out yet. I was working because I grew up poor, and I noticed that the people who worked didn’t go hungry. If I wanted to eat, I needed to work. I kept working different jobs and always kept my eyes out for something a little better, but the world doesn’t offer a lot with only a high school diploma. I was 18 and working at a computer store when this new job came up.
I met a friend of a friend, and we were talking. He asked me:
“How do you like your job?”
“Well, it’s a job,” I said. “It’s okay.”
He asked me if I was interested in working where he works, at Youth Training School.
“What do you guys do there?”
“We don’t do much, and we make a lot of money,” he responded.
I thought that sounded better than what I had. I was a high school graduate with no real marketable skills or experience. I had nothing to lose.
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.”
And that was the extent of it. He just wanted people who would fight and not necessarily win. I had to be willing to fight. If I could take a beating like a man, that would be okay too; I just couldn’t run.
At the training academy, we were told:
You have to be yourself. If you’re trying to be someone you’re not, the wards will see it, and they’re going to call you out, and it could get uncomfortable. So, if you’re a nice person, be a nice person, and follow the rules. If you’re mean, be mean. If you’re a jerk, be a jerk. But be you, so the wards know how to deal with you. Be real.
I started working at YTS in the summer of 1986; I was 19 years old.
As a sworn officer, I could carry a concealed weapon everywhere without a permit, but I wasn’t old enough to buy bullets. The law said I had to be 21.
The department didn’t provide firearms training, but I could do it on my own at a local community college. I went to Rio Hondo College and took a course to be able to carry the weapon off-duty.
When I’d buy bullets at the shooting range, no one ever asked me for ID. I would say that I was an officer with Youth Authority, and no one ever questioned it.
The only armed personnel at YTS were the tactical squad and the parole agents; none of the other staff members were armed. We couldn’t bring a gun past the YTS checkpoint gate. There were gun lockers for us to store our personal weapons.
I came to work for my first shift — a graveyard shift. Most of the wards were older than me and physically bigger. I was given a set of keys and told to go to the housing unit and be in charge of 200 criminals. Hopefully, I’d make it through the shift, they said, and they would see me in the morning.
There were murderers, rapists, child molesters, drug dealers, and gang bangers. Every serious type of criminal you could think of was here.
A study done in the 1990s found the California Youth Authority, as a percentage, held more murderers than the adult Department of Corrections. At YTS, nobody was under the age of 18. They were all adults. They’d all been convicted. I think the public intentionally was led to believe that these were kids. They wanted us to call them students as if they were in a classroom or clients, but the bottom line was they were all criminals who had done terrible things to people.
We had one ward that raped his grandmother, then raped her dog. We had one ward that had been homeless. He had been taken in by a woman out of the kindness of her heart and lived with her for a while. Then he murdered her. Then he came to YTS and murdered one of our officers.
I had no idea what I was doing and maybe I wasn’t even sure I really wanted to be here. I thought of that fat paycheck and good benefits. I’d give it a shot.
Like in any prison in the United States, I know that the inmate population at YTS had a rough life. That’s been documented and researched. They came from broken homes, fatherless, bad neighborhoods, victims of abuse, all those things, and so did these wards. I can have some sympathy for that, but the fact is that many people have those things happen to them and don’t victimize other people.
I can’t say I understand why they did what they did. I grew up in not the best environment, and so did my friends, but we never went out and murdered anybody or robbed anybody.
These guys were not just wayward young men locked up for jaywalking, which is what some people believed or that they weren’t any worse than maybe some shoplifting or truancy. That was not at all the case at YTS. That may have been true at other Youth Authority facilities. Some facilities had wards that were 13 and 14 years old, but not YTS — adults only, 18 and up.
Wards all had to act tough, pretend they were tough, even though they were scared inside. That’s true of the adult prison also because if you don’t act like you’re a tough guy, you will be victimized. That was true for the staff members also. If I looked scared, they would see it, and they would try to capitalize on that.
The way we dealt with the wards was to keep in mind that this was a dangerous place and there was violence, but we did develop a “relationship.” It was a professional relationship.
One of the things that we used to say to the wards was, “I’m friendly, but I’m not your friend. I’m not going to be a jerk to you. I’m not going to be disrespectful or mean or abusive, but we are not friends. This is a strictly business relationship. You’re incarcerated, and I’m here to keep an eye on you, keep you safe, and keep you safe from the other guys.”
We had wards rape each other, stab each other, and beat each other with weapons and without weapons. Wards left here in ambulances. We had wards medevacked out by helicopter who had been so badly injured that the only way to survive was to land a helicopter here and fly them out.
There were some places where I’d work, where I was constantly around them, literally shoulder to shoulder. Then there are other positions I’d work, like on the perimeter, where I wouldn’t see any wards. Here, the job was to prevent escapes or somebody from getting over the fence and also to prevent people from trying to get into the institution. That happened at the main entrance, at the checkpoint:
I was an outside patrol unit. I drove up to the checkpoint, and the officer working there was talking to a child, maybe ten years old, in the backseat of his mom’s car. I knew immediately what was happening. The mother had driven up with the child. She looked like she was at her wit’s end. The child wasn’t listening, wasn’t doing his homework, and was being very difficult. She didn’t know what to do, so she brought him here hoping maybe we could say something to him, kind of scared-straight type of thing. The checkpoint officer was scolding the young man, telling him to behave, to listen to his mother, eat his vegetables — those sorts of things.
“Is this guy coming inside or not?” I said, acting seriously. The kid started to freak out a little bit and didn’t want to come out of the car. “Do I need to call for backup? Is there a problem?”
As I said that, our K9 unit drove up. “I called the K9s,” I said to the kid, “they’re here now, and we need you to come out of the car.” We were putting on an act — we had done this before.
Some words were exchanged, and the mother drove off with the kid. We never saw him again.
A lot of the wards did admit to being at YTS because their parents didn’t discipline them. That manifests itself in a lot of different ways, and they end up here in the Youth Authority. We had some older staff, and they did talk to the wards like they were a coach or an older parent. I was 19 when I started, so I could maybe be a younger brother, but that’s not going to help with somebody who’d killed three people. He’s not going to listen to me.
A lot of these guys haven’t seen the light of day much. A big section of their lives has not been lived outside of the facility. I had encounters with the wards where they would let their guard down.
This young man, who must have been around 25 years old, was in a vehicle with me. He was going out on parole. He got quiet and asked me, “Hey, what are women like?”
At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant. When I thought about it and realized that this grown man at 25 has probably been locked up since he was 13 or 14. He’s never been on a date, never driven a car; probably, he’s never kissed a girl — certainly not a woman.
He was older than me, and I thought, “Well, what do I know?” Of course, like all young men, I thought I knew everything but probably didn’t know anything. I was stunned. I blurted out the first dumb thing that came to mind, “They’re great. You should try one.”
That was all that was said. I don’t know that that helped them. I’m guessing it didn’t, but I didn’t know what else to say.
There was a small Youth Authority facility in El Centro that housed females. These were the female equivalent of the wards we had at YTS. For disciplinary hearings, they would bus them up to YTS. This was often the first time that this entire male population at YTS would see women.
Once a month, a busload of young women would pull into the middle of YTS as hundreds of young males would walk by who’ve not seen a woman in years. Things would get a little weird: catcalls, obscene gestures — half of it was coming from the girls! They would yell out crazy things, and the guys would yell out crazy things, and we had to keep them separated. It was kind of funny.
One night I was doing bench checks — counting, making sure everybody was there and okay. I would do this every night, every hour, every half hour.
I walked by a cell, and an inmate stopped me and asked me to show him my hand.
He looked at my ring finger on my left hand:
“You’re not married?”
“No, I’m not married.”
“How does that work with the wedding rings and wedding bands?”
“Okay, well, the way it works is when you propose to a girl, you give her a diamond ring, and then when you get married, you both get a wedding band.”
He thought about it for a moment and began to get angry.
“Wait a minute. Let me understand this,” he said. “You mean she gets two rings, and I only get one?”
He got very angry at that, as if it was unfair.
I worked graveyard shift on unit 3 with a woman who did her job exactly as she was supposed to. She’d go down the halls where the cells were and tell the wards to be quiet, stop smoking, and turn the TV volume down. She’d tell them to turn the lights off at 10:00 PM — no one liked being told that. A lot of the wards had small TVs, radios, and things like that.
“Hey, fuck you. I’m a grown-ass man,” one ward would say. “Don’t tell me what to do, you bitch!”
But when the inmate was paroled from her housing unit, he’d stop and try to shake her hand. He would tell her, “Hey, thanks for everything you did for me,” before leaving. It always stunned her. She would turn to me and say, “That guy has been threatening me for the last six months, and now he’s thanking me?” She could never understand that maybe she was the mother they didn’t have, but needed.
I had an incident once where we had two guys in a cell acting up. We had to get them out of the cell, and they didn’t want to come out. We ended up in a fight. We opened the cell door, ran in, tackled them, handcuffed them, and dragged him out. Because there was a scuffle, we took them to the infirmary to get checked out by a doctor to make sure they weren’t seriously injured.
When the medical staff was examining them, I had unhandcuffed one of the guys, and the first thing he did was turned around and stick his hand out — he wanted to shake my hand.
“Wow,” he said to me, “that was awesome. I didn’t think you’d come in like that!”
I said, well, “That’s what we do. That’s the job.”
There was no animosity. There was no anger. It was just business.
We were told the cost of housing an inmate at Chino Men’s Prison across the street — including food, clothing, housing, and the basics — was around $25,000 to $30,000 a year. The cost to house one of the wards at YTS was closer to $300,000 a year because I guess they needed more services. They got a counselor, a teacher, a shrink, and other things like that. They said the price was one of the big reasons they shut the facility down. I’m sure there was some political gamesmanship going on.
They would provide wards with a couple of sheets of paper, envelopes, a pencil, and a couple of stamps each month. When budget talks came around at the end of the fiscal year, like always, they wanted to cut the number of free letters and stamps that they gave the wards. They cut them in half, saying this was because of the budget.
I was sitting in the waiting room for the infirmary, and one of the wards brought this issue up to me. We got into a discussion, and it was clear that the wards understood that cutting the number of stamps would have zero effect on the budget. It was nonsense. Whatever reason they were doing it, it had nothing to do with the budget. A fifteen-cent stamp once a month was pennies compared to some of the other waste going on.
When we were told the facility was going to close down, we had plenty of notice. It didn’t happen overnight. We kept getting different stories. First, they told us we were all going to be out of a job. Then they said we’d all have to reapply and then that we could transfer to a Youth Authority facility anywhere in the state. Finally, we were told we could go work across the street at California Institution for Men in Chino.
To work there, we all went through a Transition Academy, taught at the YTS grounds in the classrooms. We went eight hours a day for four weeks.
The wards had been transferred out of YTS, except for one special unit in the hospital. It was a psychiatric facility controlled by another agency. It held a few wards with severe mental issues that were being dealt with.
Some people transferred to other prisons. The vast majority of YTS staff transferred to California Institution for Men in Chino, and we all met there in a giant group one morning; we went to figure out our work assignments, and it was the usual mess.
The staff members had a job to do, and they had people they answered to. The wards answered to the people in their gangs. They answered to other wards, things like that. So even though there were violent threats, you often heard the words, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” You would hear that from management, from the wards mostly, but you’d hear it from everyone.
If you’re an inmate, you go home someday, hopefully, and you try to put it behind you. The staff members do the same thing.
I always thought I was pretty much the same person off-duty and on-duty, until one day. I was giving a coworker a ride home. She said, “You know, when you’re not at work, you’re a nice guy.” The way she said it and the look on her face stunned me. I thought, “Wow, I must become a monster at work!” That always stuck with me, and I thought about that a lot afterward. I guess you can’t always leave the job at the job. If you behave a certain way for eight hours, it’s sometimes hard to shake that off.
David Sanchez Jr. worked as a corrections officer at YTS from 1986 until the facility closed in 2010 — a member of The Last Watch. He finished his career at California Institution for Men in Chino from 2010–2016. He is an avid academic, earning impressive university degrees, including Bachelor of Arts Degrees in Psychology and Philosophy, a Master of Science Degree in Criminal Justice, and a Juris Doctor Degree from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
He’s a 4th degree Black Belt in Judo and JuJitsu and teaches mixed martial arts privately and at local universities. He’s an active volunteer, working with young kids in his community.
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