Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS (Ep 9)
Edited and photographed by David William Reeve
Editor’s note: This is Part 9 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, 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.
“Lost in the Halls”
I was watching my neighbor’s house. They would leave for months at a time. I started going inside when they weren’t there. I went to my freshman high school orientation drunk on some wine that I found there.
I had nowhere to stay, so I lived in a tent in my mom’s backyard. At night I would run around and do whatever I wanted, then come home and sleep in the tent. I could go inside the house to shower, then go to school. My mom was okay with it. I started jimmying car doors at night. I figured it was safer than breaking into houses. I could get car stereos and a little money. I was a kid — I didn’t need a lot of money, just for beer and weed.
My mom found a stolen car stereo in the garage and turned me in to the cops; my neighbor reported the burglary, and suddenly the cops had my fingerprints. I was sent to the Torrance Diversion Program, where I’d meet once a week with other kids at the police department.
At Inglewood Courthouse, I was charged with first-degree residential burglary, marijuana cultivation, and trespassing. I only had a little marijuana in a Dixie Cup, and got all these charges. Robert Babb, my piece of shit counselor, said I was “big on drugs,” and my juvenile probation officer said I “looked like a big doper.” At the time, I had done mushrooms and acid a few times. I smoked crack once, but I smoked weed and drank a shit load of times.
I got processed into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and sent to Phoenix House to complete an 18-month drug program. I was just this white kid who smoked pot, and now I’m with all these gang bangers and crack heads. This dude, Andy, shows up. He’s from Redondo Beach, and all he had done was smoke some weed, too.
Andy was a year older than me, 16. He was scrawny with long, shaggy hair. They had Andy pegged as an intravenous meth user, but he’d never used needles before.
“Dude, I’m getting out of here tonight,” Andy said. They had just yelled at him really bad earlier that day. We were in the kitchen of the Phoenix House, and there was a door we could open, so we just decided to leave. Then an alarm went off. We violated probation by leaving, and they put the cops out on us. We jumped a fence and were running in the middle of nowhere through Lakeview Terrace at night. We found a gas station where Andy’s buddy Shane picked us up, and we got high. He let us sleep in his truck. When we woke up in the morning, we smoked more weed.
We were homeless together in Torrance for a week or two, scrounging money, eating fast food and smoking cheap weed, but it was better than Phoenix House. Our buddy Tony fronted us half a sheet of acid and cut the tabs in half so we could sell it and make money.
At the corner of 166th and Crenshaw, we crawled inside a storm drain to sleep.
“Fuck this, I’m going to my mom’s,” I told Andy the next morning. “When she goes to work, I’m getting inside.”
We got to my mom’s house, but the window wouldn’t open — it was nailed shut. The cops arrived, and we still had half a sheet of acid on us. They patted us down but didn’t find it, so we fed the acid to each other in the back of the cop car. We ate the whole half sheet. They figured out who we were and put us in the holding tank of the Torrance Police Department. My mom pressed charges against me for trying to enter the window.
They sent Andy and me to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall and then transferred us to Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.
They were doing 23 and 1 in the Halls, but I was lucky — I was a day room sleeper. In juvenile halls, it was often so overcrowded they had no beds available, so I’d sleep in the day room on these mats and watch TV all the time. If you’re a day room sleeper, most of the time, you’re stuck in a fucking chair rather than being in a cell.
These kids in the room next to me tried to AWOL and stab a member of the staff. I remember that night they beat the living shit out of those kids, and I could hear the cops stomping and beating on them for hours.
Me and Andy stayed together — they didn’t know we were crime partners at the time. Eventually, they split us up and sent us into different units before I was sent to Camp Gonzalez.
At camp, I got more hip to the gang shit. As a 15-year-old, I was getting educated on all of this. There were a lot of gang bangers fighting in the blind spots, like fighting in the bathroom on their knees. There were places you could fight and not get caught, but I wasn’t involved in any of that.
At Camp Miller in Malibu, I thought I was close to going home. I thought this nightmare was going to be over, and I could get my life together. I wanted to get back into high school. My mom and her boyfriend Larry, who was a real piece of shit, came to visit me. She told me that I hadn’t learned my lesson, that I was out of control and not coming home when I got out.
My mom was wiping her hands of me again.
I felt so crushed. My whole world died. I was crying, so the staff let me stand outside to compose myself — I couldn’t believe it.
My time at Camp Miller was done, but I became a ward of the court because my mom didn’t want me.
I was lost in the Halls…lost in the system. I was playing a waiting game until the chains come and get me and take me to wherever I needed to go. In the Halls, you’re just a paycheck for someone.
My parole officer drove me to St. John School for Boys in the desert near Whitewater. St. John School for Boys was fucked up. The staff was old, the kids were all gang bangers, and nothing could be controlled. I knew about gang banging but wasn’t into it. I was the only white kid there, and I was the only kid from Los Angeles.
“Fuck LA!” they would say and jump me.
All those kids were there because they were wards of the court. It was a low-lockdown placement, but I could leave because they weren’t holding me for a crime. I went AWOL and hitchhiked home to Torrance in the middle of the night, wearing my socks on my arms to stay warm.
I met up with some friends, but Andy was not around — he was still busted in the Halls. I went to see my mom a few times but didn’t get any help because I was AWOL. She gave me some of my clothes but wouldn’t let me stay.
Eventually, my friends went home at night. It started raining, and I got all wet. I went to an apartment complex where they had a storage shelf above the parking spaces. I found one unlocked, and I crawled inside. I took off my clothes and hung them to dry. I was shivering all night. This was the first time I had suicidal thoughts.
To pardon an 8-year conviction for the burglary charge, I was sentenced to the PHASE program at Camp Scudder. I had earned my GED earlier when I was in Camp Onizuka, so I didn’t have to go to high school classes anymore at Scudder. I was able to fuck around, fight in the blinds, and do dumb shit. I made myself the office orderly, passing out mail to the other wards.
This nurse gave me these blue pills when I was sick — cold medicine. The pills made me drowsy, but I liked it because of the head change. I told this kid to say he was sick, too, so he could get some blue pills. He was a big kid, but he was young — like 13 or 14. I told him where the pills were, and he went into the office and stole the whole bag.
The staff took a few of us out of the camp to speak in front of all these correctional officers and parents. My mom and Larry were there. They gave me a suit to wear and prepped me to give a speech. It was John F. Kennedy’s speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you…” After I gave the speech, everyone was clapping for me. This cholo dude from Lynwood was with me, and he had some coke. We would sneak off into the bathroom to get coked out.
As soon as I got back to camp, they threw me into handcuffs.
“What the fuck?”
“You stole some pills!” they said.
Some kid had overdosed on blue pills and was taken to the hospital. They called my mom and raided my bunk.
“How did that kid get all of these pills?” they asked me.
I had no pills in my bunk, but they knew I had access to where the pills were kept because I was an office orderly. My bunk had all kinds of contraband — kites, pens, letters from chicks, and they said there was gang writing in my letters.
I went AWOL again by jumping out of a worker van, along with the dude who brought in the coke. Our escape was reported to the La Cañada Sherriff as a prison escape — not two dudes who jumped out of a worker van — and they sent a helicopter to track us down. We were out for maybe 15 minutes and tried to steal a car when this cop shouted, “FREEZE!”.
They send me back to Sylmar Juvenile Hall. I was an escape risk, so I was put in a new building that was super secure — a building within a building.
My councilor was overlooking my case:
“You got arrested for the first time on January 19th, 1997, and you’ve never been officially released. Now you’re 18,” he said. It finally donned on me that I’d been in the system the whole time. In his report, he wrote that I was “deeply entrenched in the white supremacy mentality” and that I will “never change” and was a “hardcore white supremacist.”
I knew I was going to be sent to Youth Authority next.
I’d heard about Gladiator School, but it was a weird concept for me. I didn’t really know the Youth Authority system yet. When I first got to YTS, I remember getting in the cages before they’d rack the doors shut…boom! I remember looking outside my cell at the guard towers. This wasn’t camp… this was serious. I was scared shitless. For the first three months, I didn’t come out at all. Then I was sent to a drug program in S and T unit, doing 23 and 1 lockdown, not coming out except to shower.
The light plate in my cell was loose. I could wrap toilet paper around a paper clip or staple — any little piece of metal and touch the edge of the light switch to the metal box and create an arc. If it arcs too far, it blows the light switch, and they would have to reset the breaker. I would twist some toilet paper tightly to make a wick and light it. Then I was getting kites and cigarettes from people wanting a light.
YTS was segregated, so I got a white roommate who called himself Woody. We were getting kites from Crazy Jay in the next cell, who I was trading food and commissary items with. Crazy Jay shot us this radio.
“What do you want to listen to?” I asked Woody.
“Rap,” he said, but I didn’t want to listen to rap.
“Come on, dude, we’re not gonna listen to rap,” I said, but Woody kept pushing the issue.
“You hang out with niggers in the street listening to rap?” I asked, “I DON’T LISTEN TO RAP!”
We get in this cell fight. I was in my sandals at the time and went to punch him, but I slipped, busting my head on the bed rack. I was bleeding. I get pissed and grab Woody by the hair. I beat his head against the sink, cracking him open. It’s all bloody in there, nasty. Finally, we come to a mutual stop and clean up the cell the next day.
The guards racked us for showers. Woody wore a durag on his head to hide his injuries; I put grease over my open wounds because I didn’t want to bleed. The guards were not dumb; they saw our wounds and separated us, moving me to the cell next door.
Shotgun, as far as white dudes go, was one of the main dudes at the institution. He was 24 or 25 years old and big as fuck — a 6'4" redneck from Bakersfield who grew up hard. We called him Shotgun because his arms were like guns. He has done time as a kid and went through all the Youth Authority facilities up north.
“Where the fuck is Woody and Little Joe?” he said as he was coming down the hall. That’s when I started calling myself Little Joe.
Shotgun comes to the door of my cell and leans in. He looked like a grown man, I remember. Woody and I were scared; this dude was hard-core.
“What the fuck are you doing down here?” he asked. “You’re making us look weak right now.”
YTS had some crazy games being played. White dudes getting jumped by black dudes, race riots, whites on Mexicans, Southsiders … you had to look strong. The whole thing about YTS is that you never show weakness of any kind.
“You make us look really weak,” he said. “You knock this fucking shit off! I don’t want to come down here again. Are we good?”
Shotgun’s cellie had a dirty drug test, so they took him away. They needed to fill the empty bunk, so they put me in the cell with Shotgun instead of going back with Woody. I was scared shitless.
Shotgun beat the shit out of me every fucking day! When the cell door was closed, it was slaps to the face and socks to the body until one of us couldn’t go.
“I like you, dude, but you gotta be tough,” Shotgun would tell me. “You think you’re tough? You’re not gonna make it!”
I felt like he didn’t want to do it, but I’d be bruised so fucking bad. My forearms, my face!
I remember one time he had me against the door, and I was blocking his punches. He left himself open, and I fucking rang his bell. I slapped him so fucking hard, and I dazed the shit out of him. He came back at me and fucking broke my ribs. He fucking hit me in the ribs so fucking hard. I layed on the floor, and I could tell he felt bad.
“I’m sorry Joe, I’m sorry,” he stood over me and said, “Get up!”
I couldn’t breathe.
“Get up, Joe, I’m sorry! Get up!”
Shotgun wanted to fight every day except when he was tweaking. When he was on dope, he never wanted to fight. He didn’t do it because he was an asshole. He was like my big brother. I learned to fight. This went on for months, and I got better at fighting. We’d smoke a lot of weed together. He would kind of protect me. It was a weird thing we had.
YTS is all about programming and tradeline. Tradeline was our rehabilitation — they were teaching us a trade so that we could do something when we got out. But it’s just chaos and fights. We were preying on each other. Tradeline was a row of “L” shaped classrooms. Sector one was GED classes. Sector two was welding, building maintenance, carpentry. Sector three, around the corner, was masonry, gang, and drug counseling classes, which you had to do in order to be released. Tradeline is where everyone wanted to be, especially sector three in masonry, where there was access to weapons: shovels, hammers, and trowels. All the fights, stabbing, drugs, tattooing was all going down in sector three. If you were a disrupter, this is where you wanted to be. Shotgun was there with all the big Southsiders.
Shotgun would tell me all the shit that he heard would go down in masonry. He told me that this white dude disrespected all of the Southsiders, so the Southsider’s threatened to kill Shotgun and a bunch of other dudes over what this white guy did.
If you guys don’t whack that dude, we’re going to kill you, they said.
The Southsiders threatened to attack all the white dudes on a specific date if this white dude wasn’t removed from YTS. He had to be an example, taken out bleeding. Shotgun felt it was important to maintain race relations with the Southsiders at YTS, since it could have an impact on whites up north, who were outnumbered by Northerners.
If no one volunteered to do it, it would fall on the lowest YA number to do the dirt. But this dude, Tom, volunteered to do it — I don’t know why. I remember Shotgun making the shank — it was sharp. They gave the shank to Tom, and he fucking stabbed the guy in the neck three times on tradeline.
It comes time for me to parole. I completed all my gang classes, my drug classes. We rolled up a fat joint to celebrate that I was getting out.
“Hey, little bro, you made it. You’re gonna parole,” Shotgun said. “I’m gonna miss you.”
The next morning, they announced the parole board had been canceled, and they were doing drug tests. Shotgun’s caseworker was the one running the drug tests. I don’t know what Shotgun said to him, but I got a bag of pee from this kid and walked away with a clean test.
My mom never visited me at YTS, but my grandma picked me up and we got pizza.
That was the last time I saw Shotgun. As fucked up as he was, he was like my big brother. I was never tough — just some white kid from the beach — but him beating me in that fucking cell made me able to physically fight and be tough.
I finally see Andy again at this hotel. There were girls, people, beer, but I didn’t like the whole scene. I didn’t like being around people.
“Andy, I gotta go…”
I went back to my grandma’s house, where I was living. I wouldn’t come out of my room after that. I couldn’t watch TV; I couldn’t concentrate on movies. I’d be scared at night when it was quiet and I was alone. I had nobody, again. People tell me to get a job, but I’m scared to go outside, to be in public around big crowds of people. I wanted to just sit in my room. I remember Shotgun would call me:
“You got to live your life and go outside,” he’d say.
“I can’t. I’m fucking scared!”
“You’re a fucking YTS gladiator, and now you’re scared of the street?”
“I don’t know how to act!”
I was so institutionalized; I was scared to go outside. Finally, I would get drunk with my buddy Jacob. It would help me function if I could drink when I went out. I’d buy these cheap bottles of Vodka and Sunny Delight, and I’d go to the Redondo Beach Pier and fish, like when I was a kid.
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!
We sold so much weed out of Andy’s house in Redondo Beach. There were guns, too. One day, Andy’s dad found a quarter pound of coke that we were using to cut meth and an SKS assault rifle. I once shot out Andy’s window while showing him how to cock-back a pistol. I was lucky his parents weren’t home. We thought this shit was normal.
Andy’s mom kicked him out of the house, and I couldn’t let him be outside alone. I had this mentality that Andy was the only dog I had left.
Andy and I moved into this apartment. We were dealing weed, and Andy got sloppy, letting anyone into the house to deal.
I wake up with a .45 in my face. These cholos were in our apartment. They robbed us, took our weed and our money. They took my wallet, and I was fucking pissed because it had my Youth Authority ID in it. I had a picture in my wallet of Shotgun and the whole car from masonry. They took it. They took all my shit. It hurt.
I was really strung out on drugs, hanging out with Andy, and playing video games. All I wanted to do was get high. I didn’t want to think or remember. I didn’t want a job. I started carrying a knife with me everywhere I went. I got pulled over by the cops, and I had this dagger on me, which is a deadly weapon — a parole violation.
“You can’t be around people,” I remember being told.
I was angry and wanted to lash out. I wanted to hurt people. I didn’t feel loved, and I didn’t feel I deserved it. I felt like a piece of shit. I didn’t belong out there because of the institutionalization that I felt. In YTS, I knew the games to play and the lines to walk. No one expected me to do anything but lash out and be violent. I’m like an animal…like I needed to be in a cage. I was a disrupter, always looking for trouble. I would make fun of the programmers who wanted to go home. I wasn’t like that.
I was in county with these shot-out white dudes who were just doing their time. I still wanted to make trouble — the Youth Authority mentality. I was a YA baby. These Skinheads were the disruptive ones, so I started to hang out with them, calling myself a Skinhead. I already had a swastika tattoo on my face and Supreme White Power across my neck, so I fit right in.
When I was transferred to Delano State Prison, I got this new cellie.
“I’m a Jew, and I don’t hide it from anybody,” he says.
“Bro, you gotta get the fuck outta this cell,” I threatened. “You got until dinnertime to get the fuck out of here!”
I punched him a few times so he would know I was serious.
“You can’t be in this cell with me. I’m a Skinhead, and you’re a fucking Jew. I’m being cool with you, but get the fuck out of this cell before I do something bad because I have to!”
He wouldn’t leave, so when he went to sleep, I snatched him off his bunk and threw him on the ground, then stomped the fucking shit out of him.
Dudes in the other cells were screaming, “Knock him out!”
I remember he had my shoe prints on his head.
I felt terrible but what other choice did I have? These Skinhead dudes were gonna get me if I didn’t do it. They would fuck me up. I had been in enough fights that I just wanted to beat people up and be done with them and get them out of the way.
The guards snatch me out of my cell and throw me outside into the birdcage wearing only my shorts. Delano in the winter. I thought I was going away for a hate crime all because I had to play these games. Either it’s him on the floor bleeding, or it would be me. It’s fucked that I have to do that to another human being.
We were white power, yet of all the fights I’d gotten into, most of the fights were against other white people. Supposedly, we were these racist, hardcore dudes, but we were beating up our own people the most. It was really all about the gang. In prison, every white dude was protected by the gang. I don’t see it as white supremacy; I saw it as a gang.
I try to be a better person today. I didn’t learn, until I read Gladiator School, about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I figured I was a tough guy who made it through… I’m not! It fucked me up, and I admit it. I made it through YTS, and it didn’t kill me, and it didn’t break my spirit… and to me, that’s enough. I deserve to be loved, and I can love people. For a long time, I didn’t believe that. I thought that I was a soldier of war, and I had all this pain.
Twelve years ago, I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and somehow got off dope and weed.
I have an amazing life today. I can speak Spanish. I’ve lived in Chile and Peru and traveled throughout South America. I’ve done some amazing things in my life. I have three kids and a beautiful wife — the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants. I can solve problems without getting violent and loud. I don’t think about hurting people, but I’m always on edge. I don’t want my kids to ever have to go through the pain I went through as a child. The swastika tattoo on my face has been removed. This Hitler tattoo has been covered up. I’ve done things to distance myself from the person I was.
Joseph “Little Joe” Copeland grew up in California’s juvenile halls, Youth Authority, and state prisons. He says he had a “ten-year prison career” beginning at age 15 and including time at Inglewood Court, Central Juvenile Hall, Phoenix House, Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, Sylmar Juvenile Hall, Camp David Gonzalez, Camp Scudder, Camp Onizuka, Camp Fred Miller, St. John’s School for Boys, SRCC, Youth Training School (YTS), Los Angeles County Jail, Wayside County Jail, Tehachapi State Prison, Delano State Prison, and Ironwood State Prison. Today, Joe works as a structural welder and sheet metal worker. He lives near Torrance, where he grew up, with his wife and three kids. At the time of this interview, he was enduring chemotherapy treatment for stage 3 cancer; his doctors say he is now “100% cancer-free.”
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”