For much of my life, I was training to be a bad-ass. It wasn’t a conscious decision, like training for a new job or training for a Jiu-jitsu match—I had on-the-job survival training. I learned to be a street-smart tough guy and I practiced and perfected those skills.
My training intensified in the Youth Training School (YTS Chino). The last stop before adult prison, YTS was referred to as “gladiator training school” by its young warriors. We learned by observation, if not by experience, that there were unwritten rules to live by and the written rules were made to be broken. Vocational classes like metal shop, welding, and auto mechanics became fertile ground for harvesting samurai swords. Gnarly weapons born in “shop class” reared their ugly heads during riots. People landed in hospitals, or died at the hands of disgruntled prisoners who excelled at creating or smuggling weapons from otherwise well-intentioned training classes.
It’s difficult to unlearn lessons when they are “experienced” first-hand with a very real impact. As human beings, we tend to practice what we learn. Graduates of YTS often repeat their experiences over and over until they’re either promoted to adult prison, or become incarcerated again as adults. I was learning to be observant.
When I was sixteen, I got out for six months. I played football during that Sophomore year and practiced my “game.” The experience did more to benefit my tough-guy persona than any reading, writing or arithmetic homework. I was filled with cocky arrogance and misdirected aggression which placed me head and shoulder-pads “above” my classmates. My attitude was selfish and self-centered, even by the most rebellious teenager standards. I was learning to take charge.
It didn’t take long to be locked up again. When I left YTS, my greatest excitement was knowing that my record was clean. I was paroled as an adult. At the ripe age of twenty-one, all my juvenile offenses were sealed and I could be bailed out next time I went to jail. I knew the system and I felt like a winner. I was trained to be a bad boy and I knew I was good at it.
At that point in my life, I was caught up in saving the world. With the best of intentions and the worst “good-judgment” at my disposal, I caught three counts of armed robbery with a gun. In my mind, I was protecting my friends from three guys trying to rob us. My tough-guy intimidation and my unexpected gun disarmed the situation, and the would-be robbers threw their own wallets on the ground in exchange for their safety. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect my friend to grab the wallets, either.
My training didn’t prepare me for the reality of three unarmed kids acting a lot tougher than they were. I did get the opportunity to live out my fantasy—I made bail. Shortly thereafter, I was arrested for rescuing a “damsel in distress” in Arizona. I was charged with kidnapping a Department of Corrections officer (a.k.a. abusive husband). I narrowly escaped a fifty-to-life case with the help of a private investigator. I was returned to California to face the armed robbery charges and my short-lived “clean-record” era ended with my first walk into the adult prison yard. I was trained for this. I was learning that intentions don’t matter—results do.
Everyone is training for something. We are always preparing ourselves for what comes next on our journey. Today, I am training to fight for my values rather than face more convictions. It takes practice and support. In the four years since my release, I have traveled internationally, seen success in business ventures, nurtured a long-term loving relationship, won several international Jiu-jitsu competitions and torn down the bad-ass façade. It pays to play and we train for the game.
written by Karen VanDenBerg based on interviews with Dan Sanfellipo