Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS (Ep 8)
Edited and photographed by David William Reeve
Editor’s note: This is Part 8 of “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” — 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.
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 relays and respects their stories: Juvie told by those who were there.
In this episode, 14-year old Luis Ortega arrives in Los Angeles, lonely and vulnerable, before looking to South Central’s notorious 38th Street Gang for protection. When his desire to fit in with the gang leads to murder, Luis sheds his need for protection by fighting for survival in YTS.
Something has been on my mind. This episode of my life is all behind me. I live a different life now, and I don’t want to in any way glorify my past or this lifestyle. I want to share what I went through. This is not the person I am now. I value life now.
I remember coming to Los Angeles on a rainy, cold day when I was 14. My family had broken up, and I started a new life with my mother, brother, and sister. I was coming from a different country, and most of the time, I was alone at the house; my mom was working. I was always lonely. I never fit in.
I was a weakling, afraid of fights. I was scared to confront people, always quiet, and avoiding trouble. People would bully me, try to get over on me at school, make fun of me. I never stood up to them, never.
At junior high school in South Central Los Angeles, I met these guys who were gang members. I liked the way they dressed, the way they’d hang around; they would back each other up. Later in high school, I met the guys from 38th Street Gang, and I started hanging out. The gang was feared for the frequent homicides they committed; several of its members were already behind bars for murder. But they seemed okay, nice. They would treat me okay and back me up if there was any trouble. They made me feel safe, and I wanted to be part of it. I asked them what needed to be done to become part of the 38th Street gang.
They told me three guys would beat me up for 38 seconds.
I was scared, but I really wanted to be part of it.
“Well, I’m right here. Let’s do it.”
I was getting beat down and could hear the guy counting in the background, “1…2…3…4” he reached 30 and started counting backward. “29…28…” adding more seconds. It was alright with me. Even though I was hurting, I was so glad to be part of it. They introduced me to the older guys from the gang, who everyone seemed to look up to. Being with them, I felt protected.
I started looking for ways to be like them, not being the one who gets protection but protecting someone else. I got involved in drugs because I thought that would make me be like them.
When members of the gang came out of jail, we always looked up to them. There was an older guy named Wino who had recently come out of YTS. He looked tough. He told us he wanted to get back at some guys he had trouble with at YTS. I felt I needed to go along to get the older gang members’ approval.
“Let’s go get them,” Wino said.
We drove a stolen car to a rival neighborhood. Lil Man was driving, and Wino was in the front with a shotgun at his feet. There were a few guys on the corner, drinking and hanging out. The car approached them and stopped. Wino leaned out the window and asked:
“Where are you from?”
They just stood there, not saying a word. They knew we weren’t friends and must have known we had weapons in the car.
Wino’s rival, Hermenegildo Cortez, came out of the liquor store nearby, crossed the street, and approached us. By the way we were parked at the corner, talking to his friends, he must have thought we were friends, too. He walked up to our car window and Wino pulled out the shotgun.
“Where are you from!” Wino asked again.
Wino didn’t wait for him to answer. I saw fire come from the barrel of the shotgun. Like in slow motion, I saw the victim fall. A beer bottle fell from his hand and shattered into a thousand pieces.
Back in the neighborhood, there was bragging about what had happened. Wino had disappeared. Lil Man sent me a message: get to Mexico. The cops were looking for me. I didn’t pull the trigger, so why did I have to run? I was 15 and naive.
I ended up in Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. At Receiving, I was checked-in by an inmate worker who was a rival from the same neighborhood as Hermenegildo.
“Watch out! That guy is from your rival neighborhood,” someone said.
After he booked me in, they gave me new clothes, and I was told to shower. As I got naked, the guy from Receiving came in, and we started to fight, but it was quickly broken up.
That was my first fight. While I was not a fighter, it felt good to be involved in a fight. I had stood up for myself, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be my only fight.
I was taken to the holding cell for two weeks, where a familiar face suddenly appeared in the window. He was from 38th Street:
“Hey!” Pelon greeted me. “I heard you got into a fight, good!”
Once someone gets into a fight, everybody knows about it. It builds your reputation. Pelon brought me some things that I needed, like shampoo.
I was sentenced to 26 years-to-life. I went to Norwalk, then transferred to Fred C. Nelles Correctional Facility in Whittier.
At Nelles, I hung around with Goofy, a Puerto Rican from 38th Street who was feared and had a bad reputation. I needed to keep up with his reputation, so I started doing some crazy stuff, too.
During mealtime, I would see people from different units marching in long lines to the dining room. Fights would often break out in line: each rival would run half the distance to the other marching line and meet in the middle, between the two lines. If a rival made a sign at you to fight, you would have to go — it was an honor call.
One time, someone from another unit made a sign to me, wanting to fight. I was scared, but I ran the half distance. The other guy didn’t run, so I kept running anyway and didn’t stop in the middle. I continued the second half of the distance and started fighting in his line. Everyone in his unit joined the fight and started beating me up. The next thing I knew, Goofy ran across the yard and started helping me.
Fights like this would get us sent to the hole. The supervisors at Nelles knew Goofy was a bad influence on me. They said I was “a follower” influenced by others to do the wrong thing. Nelles didn’t want to deal with me anymore, so they transferred me to YTS when I was 17.
I knew there would be gangs at YTS from the North and the South. They were at war against each other. I knew it would be a battle. They’d have shanks, and they’d kill people. Nobody said it out loud because we didn’t want to look like cowards, but deep down, nobody wanted to go to YTS.
I remember thinking, “so this is it, as I got off the bus at YTS.
It looked like a prison, with gates, barbed wire, and guard towers. I had heard war stories about this place. I knew I would end up dead but wanted to stay alive as long as I could. I was in isolation the first day while they looked at my file, trying to figure out who I’d have problems with. They sent me to the Drug Unit. I felt the same as when I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time — alone.
I spent the first year in a unit that specialized in drug rehabilitation. When the program was completed, my C.O. thought that he was doing me a favor by sending me to G & H, where I could work in the trade shops and make a little money.
I got a job in the warehouse near Receiving and Release, where the prison supplies would be delivered, and busses would arrive with new inmates. This was considered the best job an inmate could have at YTS. I got along really good with all the staff there, especially two of the guards who would take care of me and cover if I got into trouble. I pulled some strings with the guards to get warehouse jobs for others from my gang so that they could work with me.
When I was working, I would see the new inmates arrive on the bus in Receiving and Release. New inmates from 38th Street looked up to me because I had been there the longest. They called me the “Big Homeboy.”
When inmates from rival neighborhoods would arrive, I would give them a welcome to YTS:
Behind the warehouse, there was a blind spot, outside of view from cameras and guards.
I would point out a new inmate off the bus and ask the guards to bring him to see me. They were puzzled at first.
“What for? Is he your homeboy? What do you want him for?” they asked.
“He’s just a friend. I want to talk to him,” I responded. “I’m gonna show him around.”
The guards would pull the new inmate out of the Receiving office and send them to the blind spot behind the warehouse, where I was waiting. I would fight them and then return them to the Receiving office with marks and bruises on their faces. That’s when the guards understood:
“You wanted the guy so you could beat him up!” they’d laugh.
Not everyone at YTS is a good fighter. I didn’t always win because I was a great fighter. I’d win because the other guy wasn’t as good as me. I always tried to pick people my age so that I wouldn’t look bad if I lost the fight. We would fight until we got tired. Either I got the best of him, or he gets the best of me. Somehow, we agree when it’s over, and we’d both walk away. I remember when I had a guy called down behind the warehouse to fight, and he knocked me out. It takes a lot to recognize that somebody put you out, but this guy put me out.
The guards were not watching us fight, not promoting it, but they knew we were fighting. They were doing us a favor to let us handle our business without getting in trouble.
If there were inmates who wanted to fight me, I would ask the guards to call their unit, issue them a pass, and allow them to walk to the warehouse. We would go to the blind spot behind the warehouse and fight. One time, I was playing with my homeboys on the field, and I got into it with somebody.
“I’m going to send you a pass,” I shouted at him.
“Send me a pass and I’ll be there!” he shouted back.
I would have the guard call their unit and send them to the warehouse. These inmates knew that 38th Street had the power. They had more fear for us, knowing we had the guards’ backup — not all the guards — but a couple.
The fights were adding up. After a while, I started counting. I made a list; fifty-five fights. Before, I was a weakling, but now people feared me. I’d fight, and I had a system with the guards that would back me up. Once you have the backup of the guards, who could go against you? This went on for five years.
In 1993, I was released from YTS and deported to Mexico at age 23. I went to Ensenada, B.C. Mexico and saw some relatives and old friends. They couldn’t believe I had been in jail and that I was a part of a gang.
Getting back into the country was so easy. I was arrested again in 1994 on a domestic violence charge — a parole violation — and sent back to YTS for another six months. A bus from YTS came to take me back. My friend — the guard from the warehouse — was driving the bus. Somehow, he heard that I had been killed on the outside. He was excited to see me, glad I was still alive, and refused to handcuff me up like the others on the bus. We talked the whole time as the bus returned us to YTS. Going back was like a vacation; my friends greeted me when I arrived. I felt embarrassed to see friends that were lifers, who so desperately wanted the opportunity to get out that I had wasted.
I got out of YTS the second time and started studying the Bible with the Jehovah Witnesses. I learned not to be involved in violence and to find a better way of life. I didn’t want to be a part of a gang anymore, but I didn’t want to just walk away.
I had been working for a drug dealer from 38th Street named Bad Boy; his real name was Lucio. I thought leaving the gang would be complicated, blood in, blood out. I had to tell Bad Boy that I didn’t want to be part of it. I told him of my plans to leave 38th Street. We were driving in his car, and he stopped. I explained what I wanted to do with my life. I thought he was going to beat me up. Instead, he turned to me:
“I wish I had the guts to do the same, but I can’t leave. I want to do the same thing you want to do — go to Mexico and start new.”
He had connections and was a big supplier of cocaine and marijuana.
He reached into the back seat, gets out a bag full of money, and opens it to show me.
“Are you sure you want to leave, or do you want to keep working for me?”
I saw the money; I knew he was tempting me. I told him, “I had made up my mind,” and that I was sure I wanted to go the right way. I knew God would help me straighten my life up so I could serve Him.
“If you ever need anything from me, please call, and I’ll help you,” he ended.
I was free.
By cutting ties with the gang, I wasn’t able to make money. Bad Boy offered me a job to do some remodeling work at his house, just until I could get on my feet in a legal way. This led to me working in construction in Beverly Hills, helping to renovate the floor of a shopping mall. I was getting money the legal way.
I went back to Mexico on my own, away from Southern California, because I wanted to avoid the risk of being dragged back to the gang lifestyle. I survived the California Youth Authority, but I wasn’t rehabilitated there. I resolved to leave all my gang lifestyle in the past, even though I fought an intense battle inside me to avoid violence. Now I try to make peace, break up fights, and help the people around me get along.
Bad Boy was shot in the head several times and died on July 27, 2009 in East Rancho Dominguez. His body was found in an alley after neighbors heard gunshots and called the police.
Luis “Snoops” Ortega spent eight years in the California Youth Authority, including Central Juvenile Hall, Fred C. Nelles Correctional Facility, Youth Training School, and the Southern Youth Correctional Reception Center and Clinic in Norwalk. Today he lives in Mexico, working for an American company. Luis became a Jehovah Witness in 1997 and has lived a straight life away from violence since then. Along with his family, he preaches the word of God in a local congregation.
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”
“Putting in work”
“The last watch”
“The white horse”
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