Welcome to a new series of difficult but important testimony. “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” is an oral history of life inside California’s most notorious juvenile prison. Closed in 2010, Youth Training 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. This series will relay and respect their stories: Juvie told by the ones who were there.
In this episode, Chris (aka Savage) is sent to The Hole for hiding a shank under his mattress, when the prison suddenly breaks out into riot.
“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.
We couldn’t show fear.
The only types of people that you find in the different joints are victims or victimizers. I had made up my mind many years before, I was not going to be a victim. Nobody’s victim. And that meant there were no rules. There was no right or wrong. There was I’m alive and staying alive, or the opposite.
So we pulled up to YTS and they processed us and I went to Unit One.
Once the doors closed, everybody went to bed. You couldn’t hear a mouse. I heard nothing and that heightened my fear because then I knew I was really fucked. I was real fucked. I knew there were 20 or 30 die hard enemies there. They knew a week before I did that I was coming. I knew they were ready. But from the time it got quiet on that bus until the day after, I didn’t make a peep. I wanted to be invisible so bad. There was no doubt in my mind that I was outnumbered. They were gonna get me. But I’d take as many with me as I could. I knew I was going to die. But I wasn’t going alone.
I heard the term Gladiator School when I went to Ventura. They told me what it meant and that of all the joints in the state, everyone — even guys at Folsom — refer to that place as Gladiator School. That’s what YTS is! You go there to learn to survive at any joint. That’s where you learn all the techniques of doing time, making sure nobody fucks with you.
Eye for an eye. No mercy. No fear.
You could look in my eyes and no one was there. At least, no person. No people. If you see my photo from back then, look at the eyes. There’s no one there. There’s no one there! That’s from YTS. I remember the day… it was not long after I got there the first time. Each cell has a little mirror — a high polished metal (because they won’t put glass). I remember looking in but it wasn’t me reflected. I don’t recall looking in mirrors after that.
Someone or something conveyed to me, you are mine. You’re no longer alive.
I don’t know how to say it. I’m not saying there’s a real heaven, God or Satan; I know that what I felt on the bus and what I saw in that mirror were not of this world. It was not flesh and blood. And what I felt on that bus cannot be called fear. It’s something well beyond that.
I was scared shitless coming back to YTS from a northern institution. At least I had a shank beef up north. I didn’t need much else in terms of credentials. I had just come from the enemy’s camp. I was good. In Spanish, we call it clavo. In English, it means nails, little nails. Culturally it means who has power.
I had clavo.
I got back to YTS and I thought for sure I’d go to Unit Two or Three. Unit Two was where they had The Hole. Three was for tough guys. You do not want to be with those guys.
They took me back to Unit One but I was lowriding, and I belonged in Unit Three.
There were about 20 or 30 guys from deadly rivals of my neighborhood there at the time. Because I was on a new shank beef, they’d back up for now. I was waiting to get piled on with a new case for my shank beef worth 6 or 9 months. I only had 5 months left so I knew I’d be there a while. I asked my counselor, what’s up? He was Chicano, too. He’d tell me what was going on.
What he didn’t know was, I had another shank in my cell.
I had seen the Goon Squad in action on my unit. The Goon Squad were the Storm Troopers. The Special Police of the Guards. When they were gonna throw a raid, you knew because there were some ramps that led up to the second floor — you could hear them dragging chains up that ramp. They always dragged them so you’d know they were coming.
While we were in the shower, they searched my cell and found my shank. Here I come back from my shower, and they didn’t say nothing. They let everyone out to watch TV, but my door stayed locked.
What’s going on? Then I can hear chains being drug. They’re coming for me.
They would bring the whole bunch of chains: ankle cuffs joined by an 18-inch chain and another chain connected to the waist chain; handcuffs would attach to the waist chain. Another chain — about three feet long — was to hold onto so you wouldn’t run.
They unlocked my door and hooked me up. They took me to the control booth and behind that is where four temporary holes are. They took me to the back. There’s a wall of grill grate. They unlocked it and took me in and there’s an area with four doors, two on each side. They opened one and took me in. There’s another grill grate and another set of bars. They put me in and unhooked me.
I was in The Hole.
I came to YTS on a shank. With this new one, that’s two. I expected to be buried in time. I heard nothing. They told me nothing. Back there, it’s quiet. You don’t hear anything, and it gets to you. It seemed like forever. My counselor comes back and says we’re not gonna file a new shank (possession)
I was in the hole for a week. The reason why they didn’t charge me is that there had been a riot on O and R and all the guys overcame the guard at night. He’d come late at night and kick your door and fuck with you. They all wanted to get him, and they did. I don’t know if he lived, but I do know they beat him like I never heard of anyone being beaten. They let themselves out through the yard and made it over the fences, avoided the towers and made a run
They took over the whole unit and for three days there was a stand-off. That’s why they decided to keep me where I was, because O and R was a mess. I was in my house 23 hours of 24. For one hour every day they let me out to shower and look out the window at nothing. The only communication was when they unlocked the outer door and would slide my tray of food in. Once they closed that outer door, I could hear nothing.
Food was passed through this space in the inner door.
Because of what happened at Unit Two they couldn’t file on me because they were busy filing on those guys; assault, escape, a whole unit of guys, like 200 — a lot of paperwork. The board was busy, and I was fucked, going nowhere.
Finally, after 90 days, I still don’t know why the board actually released me and reinstated my parole.
It didn’t matter because I lasted 4 or 5 weeks and got busted on a gunfight; I had some burglaries and robberies besides. The only difference was they weren’t gonna send me to YTS this time. I went to Chino Institute for Men.
Chris R., aka “Savage” was first incarcerated at age ten, serving time in local jails in Southern California before graduating to multiple juvenile facilities, including the time documented here at Youth Trade School (YTS) between 1973–1976. Chris was released from Chino Institution for Men at age 19 after serving six-months when his record was wiped clean and his parole officer encouraged him to leave town. He later dedicated his life to helping ex-felons and those abusing drugs and alcohol. Chris holds two master’s degrees, including one from The University of Chicago. He helped run St. Leonard’s House, the Women’s Treatment Center, and the Association House of Chicago for many years, which provided aid to under-serviced communities.
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”
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