Edited and photographed by David William Reeve
Welcome to a new series of difficult but important testimony. “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” will recount first-hand accounts of life 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.
Part One “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.
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”
Part One: “We couldn’t show fear”
Part Two: “You could hear them dragging chains”
Part Three: “Remember what they taught us?”
Part Four: “How soon will I know?”
David William Reeve is an independent writer and photographer who documents the lives of children at risk. Visit davidreeve.net for more.
Contact: davidwilliamreeve (at) gmail (dot) com