Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS
“The only way out”
Edited by David William Reeve
“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, Adrián (not his real name) ascends the ranks of La Eme — The Mexican Mafia — as he trades violence as currency in seeking shelter from the swelling corruption he witnesses within the California Youth Authority.
“The only way out”
An inmate named Sam was a real problem. He bothered some people. I went to my room and got a toothbrush, put a razor blade on the toothbrush, and went to the laundry room where Sam was. I did not want to hurt this guy. I only cut him one time by his ear. I sliced him.
He was bleeding so much they thought I sliced his throat. They shot me with this rubber bullet that knocked me to the floor then took me to the hole. This is where the nightmare begins.
When I went to the hole, they stripped me down — took all my clothes off. My body was burning with pepper spray. I was crying. I was telling the officer that I needed to go to medical, “please, please.” They cuffed me up and hung me by my feet in the shower. They left me there. I was screaming and crying.
Cutting Sam was a felony… the only way out of there was to get to adult prison.
When they took the handcuffs off, the guard slapped me real hard.
“This is called initiation! I’m showing you who is in control right here. You’re going to be here in the hole. You’re going to shit when I tell you to shit. You’re going to sleep when I tell you to sleep. When I tell you to stand up, you’re going to stand up. I want you to know I’m in charge.”
My body is still burning from the pepper spray.
“Sir, why did you hit me?” I was crying. He refused to take me to medical. He put me in the hole like that, naked.
I went on a shooting spree in 1993. I was 14 years old and I was in with the wrong crowd, drinking beer. I shot a couple people on the street and I got arrested. Never had a criminal record before. The judge sentenced me until my 25th birthday. It was in the newspaper.
“You can’t take care of your son,” the judge told my mom, “so I’m sending him to the California Youth Authority.” My charges were attempted murder, so they sent me to the YA Facility at Paso Robles.
I cut a piece of plastic from a plate on my food tray and waited for the night guard. I sliced my wrist and got under the blanket. The C.O. did the night rounds and knocked on my door. I didn’t move.
“Leave me alone,” I shouted and lifted my hand. He saw blood and hit the panic alarm.
When I was in the infirmary, they said, “Why did you slice your wrist, Adrián?”
“You ignore me, that’s why I did it.”
“I’ll give you some medicine to help you out.”
In this cup was a little juice and some Thorazine. I was walking in slow motion, like a zombie. My mouth was hanging open. It was really bad.
“You’re not going to slice your wrist anymore, are you?”
I was not the only one. A guy killed himself by hanging from a sheet. There was another guy walking like a zombie all the time from taking Thorazine.
My whole mind was thinking about escape. I wanted some way out.
I remember my mom sent me Tres Flowers Hair Grease because I used to comb my hair back. After I took my shower, I couldn’t find my hair grease. Somebody went inside my locker and stole my Tres Flowers! They were putting me to a test to see if I was going to snitch. I’m looking around, but nobody knows nothing. I didn’t want to fight and get more time but I had to do something.
Before we go to eat dinner, we go to the living room to watch TV for an hour. Everybody’s watching TV and I’m sitting on the couch. I’m a small guy, so I push the couch under the TV and reach up to turn it off.
“Whoever stole my Tres Flowers — fuck yer mom, fuck yer dead homies.”
This cholo guy rushed me and started fighting. I was sent to the hole, but I earned my respect. Adrián isn’t a snitch. I fought like a man.
When I was in the hole, it was dark. I couldn’t see outside, but they can see in. When I went to the shower, the officer setting up my food spit in it. I refused to eat. They put a sign on my door that said I refused to eat. I wanted to speak to the superintendent.
“It’s not right what’s happening!”
They sent in a psychiatrist who asked, “How come you’re not eating, Adrián?”
“I’m not eating because there’s a lot of things happening, and I don’t know who to talk to.” I told him everything that I’d seen. He told the officers what I said. Now the officers turn against me and told another inmate that I was a snitch for what I told the psych. So I’m showering and this other inmate started hitting me, so I defended myself. Instead of him helping me out, the psych made it worse. I went three days without eating.
They put me in the observation room where there is a camera. I needed some toilet paper to use the bathroom and I knocked on the door, calling for the C.O.
“You knock on the door one more time I’ll beat your ass. I’ll give you the toilet paper when I want to, not when you need it.”
I was a little bit scared. “I need to use the bathroom; it’s an emergency.”
I knocked again for my toilet paper. He turned the camera monitor off and came inside and started hitting me. He was a big officer. He punched me in my ribs. Here I am 14 years old. They cuffed my legs to the concrete bed with my arms extended. A doctor came in to be sure my cuffs were not too tight. My legs were hurting. There were marks on my legs. They left me like that for two days in the hole.
I got a visit from my mom.
“Mom, can you get a lawyer? You need to get a lawyer.”
My mom was really worried. She called Youth Authority and said, “if something happens to my son, I’m going to sue you guys.” They called from Sacramento and they transferred me. I went to Camp Karl Holton and it was more peaceful. From there I went to Ventura. I felt I wasn’t going to see all the violence that I had seen before, but it was worse.
At Ventura, half of the unit is for guys and half of the unit is for ladies. The first class I went to was English class. The teacher used to read the newspaper to pretend he didn’t see anything, but everywhere you look a guy is sitting next to a female. If the female is sitting next to you it’s 100% that’s your girlfriend. Everybody was doing sexual activity. The women used to rip their pants on purpose and didn’t wear panties. The guy sitting next to her will pretend like he’s doing his homework.
Wearing a yellow badge means you’re over 18. If you wear a white badge, you’re underage. I see this guy who is 24 years old doing sexual activity to this 14-year-old girl. That’s rape in my mind.
If you had a girlfriend, you were lucky. We’d go to church because of the blind spots. We were not going to learn; we were going to see our girlfriends and give them a kiss.
In Ventura you were allowed to write letters. I used to get love letters and stuff like that.
I had a girlfriend whose name was Suzanna. She wrote me a letter and said, “Adrián don’t be mad, but this C.O. is giving out make-up and shoes.” He approached my girlfriend and she wanted some shoes and had to do a sexual favor. I kind of got jealous… that’s not right.
There was a student aid in art class. My girl told me in letters that the student aid guy tried to abuse her and grabbed her ass. She couldn’t say anything to the teacher because other girls would turn on her and say she was a snitch. I got mad at her and said “you gotta get out of that class.” If I get in a fight with the guy that touched her, they’d move me to a prison. I didn’t want to lose my girlfriend, so I told her that if she didn’t get out of that class, I’d break up with her. “If you don’t leave that class, it’s because you like him touching you!”
“You have a girlfriend on suicide watch,” an officer said. “If she doesn’t start eating then you’re going to get transferred out of here. You’re going to come with me and have 5 minutes to talk to her.”
They take me to her unit. Beautiful girl, I loved her so much.
This C.O. would approach whoever he thought the prettiest girl was. He would ask, “What type of shoe do you wear? You want some Nike’s? I’ll get you some Nike’s. What unit do you live on?”
He would go to the girl’s room, give her some new shoes. She had to do a sexual favor in return. The next day you go to school and you see a girl wearing Nike’s that they don’t sell in the commissary, beautiful Air Jordans.
My roommate was in a street gang. He was there for murder and was 24-years-old. He had six months to go. He worked at the TWA call center that was a vocational training program for the airline. He used to go there every morning and they paid good money. They were running a prostitution ring at the call center. This is how it works: there was this white girl and my roommate used to tell me the security officer would allow for her to go inside the men’s bathroom and have sex. She would have sex with guys in exchange for $100 worth of commissary. She’d give you a list of what to buy her from the store.
When I was in the hole, they brought a girl in… I was looking right at her room and she’s asleep. I get on the floor where there’s a crack under the door and I’m hearing the officers say she’s hot. I was listening. Around 2 o’ clock in the morning, all the power went off. I heard footsteps and keys — the officers carry a lot of keys. I heard the door open the heard them cover her mouth and rape her. When the lights came on the girl was crying.
“What’s wrong, why are you crying?”
She said, “I can’t believe this happened to me.” Her whole body was shaking.
I get a paper and write her a note and use the elastic string in my boxers to slide it under her door. I wrote in the letter, “I know what happened.”
I didn’t like Youth Training School. I was actually there when that lady got killed and the body was found at the dump. I was in my room and the whole prison went on lockdown, searching for this lady. They interviewed everybody.
I grew up in the system. I didn’t love myself no more. I was trying to mind my own business. I was tired. I was trying to get out. I lost my family, my brother died, I became an uncle. I suffered so bad. There’s so much abuse that I’d been through. If you had a badge, you had the right to rape. You could do whatever you want. I was gonna be tough. I was gonna defend myself. I was going to hurt people if I had to. I went back to prison with the Youth Authority attitude, fuck this shit!
When I went to Wasco State Prison, I started getting involved really heavy with gangs. “This is not YA. This is prison. We play for real,” they said. “This is Wasco. Don’t come with the YA mentality because this is adults, you start new.”
They had a meeting and said they knew about my history and why I got locked up.
“You’re a gladiator, you’re a YA baby,” they said. I became a shot-caller for the Sureños gang. I had authority over other inmates. I got a black hand tattoo across my chest.
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.
It broke a rule for that officer to do that… for anyone to do that. Once I went to prison and became who I was, honestly, I had so much anger.
In 2001, I went to Pelican Bay State Prison. I went to prison in Atwater, CA… in Terre Haute, Indiana… in Oklahoma too. I was with the heavy hitters in La Eme. I knew how to speak Nahuatl. It’s a way to communicate… codes we speak when we don’t want officers to know. I held knowledge about gangs because I was a shot-caller, so they didn’t want me to have any contact with other gang members. I was in solitary confinement so long, I decided that this was not the life that I wanted anymore.
Just because I was locked up in YA doesn’t mean I’m no good. I’m human. If I could change time, I would have never done what I did.
The happiest day of my life was when I got out of prison. When I got out of ADX Colorado, they gave me an ATM card and flew me to South America.
Due to the fact that I was locked up so many times, it’s hard for me. When you go to YA and get out, it’s like you went to war. You need some counseling, somebody to talk to you and hear you out.
I don’t know how to do anything after being locked up for so long. In my eyes, I’m just a person that tried to survive. It’s hard but I’m making it. I don’t get involved with anything illegal. I try to be positive. I try to help people now.
Adrián (not his real name) grew up in the California Youth Authority. As an adult, he was recruited into the top ranks of the Mexican Mafia. He spent most of his adult years in prison. In 2016, he was released from United States Penitentiary ADX, in Florence, Colorado — the most isolated and secure prison in the country. Upon his release, he was deported to South America where he earns $6 a day working in the fields.
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