“Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” is 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. Children were hardened for survival at YTS, 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.
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.
“We were not afraid to die.”
My passion was BMX. I wanted to be a BMX racer. Since being a little kid, I wanted to compete. On Saturday mornings, I would gather up all my buddies and we would build racetracks in empty dirt lots.
My brother went to King Junior High and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. That was the biggest mistake. The school was full of drugs, acid, PCP. I remember my brother coming home one day with a black eye.
“Mike, what happened?”
“I got into the gang!”
“Yeah?” I followed in my brother’s footsteps and got into the same gang he got into, the Westside Crazies in Echo Park. At that point, King Junior High was nothing but gangs. The whole school was Crazies.
We hung out between Echo Park and Silver Lake. Our territory ended at Glendale Boulevard. When you passed Glendale Boulevard that was Echo Park guys: our enemies. Back in the 1970’s, this was 18th Street Gang territory but they died out because Temple Street and Echo Park Gangs came in and ambushed these guys so many times, they got eliminated.
I was 15, coming from MacArthur Park, buying crack in a stolen car. I pulled up to a stop sign and another car pulls up next to me. The driver said, “Where are you from?”
I said, “Crazies!”
“Fuck the Crazies!” He shouted back at me.
I said, “Where are you from?”
“Fuck the Crazy Riders!” I said.
He tells the guy in his back seat, “Shoot him!” but he doesn’t shoot. The driver reaches into the back seat, grabs the gun, and shoots.
My homie in my back seat ducked or it would have killed him. I take off driving. I didn’t know I was shot. The hollow point bullet went into the side of my arm, came out, then went in through my arm pit then came out my back.
I drive up the street to Queen of Angels Hospital and pull up to a security guard.
“I’ve been shot!”
“The Hospitals been shut down,” he says.
I get out of the car and look around. The hospital is all boarded up. I leave the stolen car behind and walk along the side of the building, where I see a bunch of people. I tap a lady on the shoulder and say, “Lady, I’m shot.” Everyone surrounds me. They lay me down and put a thick blanket on me. It was production set-up, they were making a Nightmare On Elm Street movie… that scene where Freddy Krueger was dragging his claws along the side of a wall. I’m surrounded by all these people and my buddy comes to me.
I knew what he wanted. I reached into my pocket and give him all of the crack.
I was in the hospital for a week. I go home, put my gangster clothes on… baggy jeans, Le Tigre shirts, and Nike’s. That was the late 90’s look.
“Where are you going?” my mother asked.
“I’m going to the neighborhood.” I couldn’t wait to show my injuries. It was a badge of honor.
To get to my territory on Mayberry Street, I had to walk up a lot of hills. I stopped when I saw a parked car with a purse and a pull-out stereo. I reach into my pocket. I had a “Silencer”, which is a spark plug that was used to break glass. I threw the silencer with my injured arm. It took all the force I had to break the window. I grabbed the purse and the pull-out and took off running up the steps. I got to my neighborhood and all my homeboys were there.
I was shot up, had a stolen purse and a pull-out. That night, I sold everything and went back to MacArthur Park, scored some crack, came back to Mayberry Street and joined my friends.
We were in this backyard smoking primos (marijuana and crack together). We could see the street over this small fence and notice a car passing by really slowly.
“Give me the gun,” I said, turning to my buddy.
The seven of us go out to the sidewalk, watching the car pass. I have a .22 rifle. The car comes towards us, really slow. Suddenly, they let us have it. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! The car takes off. Then we hear more gunshots down the street: pop, pop, pop. My buddy comes running towards us shouting, “I got ’em, I got ‘em.” He had shot up their whole car.
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.
In late 1992, I was sentenced to a parole violators program at Youth Training School (YTS). The purpose of going to YTS was to reform me. But, those days, prisons were full of gangs and the gang is more important than anything else. Jail was a place to meet up with your buddies. That’s what it was.
My mom came to visit and I asked her for $10 and snuck it into my room. I gave the $10 to this guy to buy me three packs of Camel non-filter cigarettes — the going rate for three packs. He gets to keep one; I get two. Weeks later, I ask the guy, “Where are my cigarettes at?” He says, “Have patience, don’t worry.” After three weeks, someone tells me this guy is selling my cigarettes. I go to the day room and find him. I sit down next to him and ask him for my cigarettes.
“Are you trying to punk me?”
“What do you think?”
“Let’s go inside the laundry room and get down?”
I go to the laundry room and wait for him and he doesn’t come in. I knew he was a punk. The next few days every time I see him, I talk crap to him, call him names.
I’m not a vicious guy, but I had to do what I had to do, because if not then I’d get a bad name for myself. I tighten a broken razor blade into a toothbrush making a little slicer. I had it all planned out. I showered and returned to my room. This guy was about three doors down from me. I shut my cell door but didn’t let it lock. I built my nerves up and sliced him one time across the face when he passed my door. He was with a buddy from his same gang, so when I sliced him I ended up holding him down and I sliced him again across his chest as his buddy was hitting me. The guards come and spray us with mace. I let go, they handcuff me and throw me into isolation for three months. They only let me out to shower. It was hard. It was dark in there. Always dark.
They sent me to a lockdown program. In this program, you’re in a cell all by yourself. They let you out for an hour or two every day. The windows have cages on them. Everyone was yelling. When they fed us, they’d tell us to get up, turn around, and face the window. Then they’d put my food tray down, use a stick to slide it across the floor, then close the door.
I was in the lockdown program writing letters to one of my homegirls. I asked her to hook me up with her female cousin, who was very beautiful. She wrote to me for a few months and we started falling in love. She came and visited me for a whole year. We were allowed to get visits in the O and R day room. We touched, kissed. That made my time go by so quickly.
The councilors were great. I did carpentry and auto mechanics classes at YTS. I was doing good in the program, so they made me a porter, cleaning up the hallways, which were always filled with trash.
There was this rumor that they were going to bring a bus load of Norteños into YTS from Preston Youth Correctional and Paso Robles.
There’s going to be a lot of killings, I remember thinking.
As soon as these guys get to YTS, they were put in my hallway, the lockdown program in O and R. One day they let all these guys out to walk to program, and they stabbed one of their own. Inside the rooms, there was a light fixture that was all glass, well they broke it and stabbed the guy pretty bad. A helicopter came and picked him up. It was crazy. I had to clean up all of the blood, because I was the porter.
In 1995, I get a phone call. I received $20,000 from a class-action lawsuit from getting bitten by a police dog. I bought a ’62 Impala, a bunch of guns, drugs. I called this guy with a Rolex watch for sale. I met him in a public place. He gave me the watch and I was sizing him up. I tell him straight out, “Listen, I’m taking this watch from you right now.” I grab him and turn him around. “I’m gonna push you and you keep walking forward. Don’t look back or I’m going to shoot you.” He walks away and I had the Rolex. I did six of those. The police caught on to me. They had my license plates and set me up. I went to jail for five years. I went to North Kern State Prison in Delano. From Delano, I went to Centinela State Prison. From Centinela I went to Donovan Prison.
The Westside Crazies were the first gang that didn’t get along with anyone around here. We were always getting ambushed. A lot of my buddies died in this neighborhood. I have so many memories, and I’m so traumatized. I spent my life shooting people and being shot at… beating up people… stabbing people. But, when it happens to one of us it touches our hearts and pisses us off. As I get older, I think about the families and how they suffered. But at the time we don’t think like that because we’re young. We’re not afraid to die. Our adrenaline is pumped up and we have so much energy.
We don’t think about dying.
When you’re in YTS you come face-to-face with the guy who shot you… and you get to know him. First, you hate the guy, then we get down, we fight. After seeing him for a year — because we’re incarcerated — you get to like the guy. We’re all human beings. I just hate you because of your gang. But God created us to love… you naturally love a person when you meet them and spend time with them.
Chris M., aka “Child” was first incarcerated at age 14 at Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier, California. He later spent two years at YTS for a number of parole violations related to gangs, guns, theft, and drugs. Today, he lives and works at the Union Rescue Mission in LA, where he is a role model among his peers. He councils Skid Row residents and recruits for the Mission in an attempt to improve the lives of the drug addicted and homeless. He credits God for using his life for a higher purpose and surviving more than 100 gunfights that have left him visibly scarred.
Want to read more? “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” is a series on Vantage:
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