Welcome to a new series of difficult but important testimony. “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” will recount first-hand accounts offe inside California’s most notorious juvenile prison. Closed in 2010, Youth Trade 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. Over a dozen parts, this series will relay and respect their stories: Juvie told by the ones who were there.
Gladiator School: "We couldn't show fear"
"A guard went up to the very front of the day-room, turned the TV down and said, “I have an announcement and you all want to hear this.” Everybody got quiet. He said, “This cottage has been closed and in a couple days you’ll be on a bus for YTS.”And that was like going from heaven to hell. Nobody wanted to go. Nobody. A couple of the guys had been to YTS before and they especially didn’t want to go. We had no choice. They hooked us up, put us on a bus, and early in the morning, we left.I remember on the bus it was noisy, to say the least. It was loud because we were all bullshitting and whatever. And then all of a sudden, nothing.I will never have words for that experience. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. I can only gather by the silence that everybody on that bus felt the same. We all felt something, and it was so real you could cut it. We could feel death. It was close by.And then we saw the first thing — the fences and the guard towers."
Gladiator School: "Remember what they taught us?"
"When you first go in, you have to know the rules and regulations, and there’s always somebody willing to give all the information. You see that the Blacks are in one section; the Whites and Chicanos are on one side. You can always tell who the ringleaders and shot callers are.
The Crips and Bloods were separated. Everybody from the Inland Empire got along. Everybody from Los Angeles got along. You didn’t talk to Blacks at all. Whites didn’t have gangs. The Whites — they were called Woods. They would put swastikas on, but there was no Aryan Brotherhood. The Nazi Lowriders were barely coming up. I had a lot of good friends who were Nazi Lowriders. But for the Chicanos, they were already in gangs."
Gladiator School: "How soon will I know?"
"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: "The only way out"
"YA made me the person that I am. It made me survive so many years in Federal Prison. The only thing I’m thankful for in YA was for taking my teardrop tattoo off. They took the teardrop off of my face with a laser. I wish they could have taken all of them. Each tattoo means something to me. When I was in Ventura, I put a S.U.R. tattoo on my hand for Southern United Raza. You can’t just have this tattoo; you have to earn it.
We got a rule if you’re a member of this organization. When you’re a Black Hand in the Mexican Mafia, you cannot… there’s no rape. It’s not allowed. For me, seeing that in Ventura, seeing her shaking, seeing the lights go out … that’s somebody’s daughter."
Gladiator School: "We were not afraid to die"
"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."