Juvenile Justice Prison

Gladiator School: Memories From the Terrible Past of California’s Youth Prisons

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

Editor’s Note: Since the Gold Rush, California’s youth prisons or “correctional institutions” have been characterized by neglect, violence, and abuse, despite attempts at reform.

During the bad old days of the mid-1990s through to the early 2000s, when California’s youth prison system was known as the California Youth Authority, or CYA, the system was plagued by a mind-numbing level of controversy and scandal that included a wave of youth suicides and graphic reports of horrific abuse by staff.

Finally, in November 2004, a consent decree was ordered as part of the settlement of a lawsuit, Farrell v. Harper, which detailed nightmarishly unconstitutional conditions in the CYA facilities, and laid down a list of mandated reforms.

The core requirement of the Farrell agreement was that CYA must exchange its abusive, and viciously punitive system for a rehabilitative model of working with kids. Theoretically, that was accomplished.

In early 2016, the state’s youth system — by then renamed the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) — was deemed to be sufficiently reformed to be released from its 12-year consent decree.

Yet, in truth, the system had not solidified reform.

Now, of course, California leaders are phasing out the state’s youth prison system, which will be replaced with local supervision and services, as part of a “reimagined” approach to youth justice.

Below is an account of photographer David Reeve’s “Gladiator School” project, a collection of portraits and stories of the daily lives of the boys — now, adult men — who spent time inside one of the most notoriously violent lockups run by the California Youth Authority: the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility, known as the Youth Training School (YTS).

The story begins at a reunion in Yucaipa for former YTS prisoners.



By Bryce Buyakie, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

As David Reeve approached the picnic, he knew he was the odd one out. After all, it took some convincing for the group to make an exception for him. Unlike the men barbecuing and swapping prison stories, Reeve never spent time in California’s juvenile justice system or its infamous Youth Training School, which the men dubbed the “Gladiator School.”

“They called YTS a gladiator school because you are going to learn and harden yourself into becoming a gladiator,” Reeve said. “You are going to learn to fight, to make deals and negotiate for survival because many of them were headed towards adult prisons like San Quentin or other hardened prisons.”

Among the picnickers who gathered at Yucaipa Community Park in Yucaipa, California for the reunion, was John Berge. He spent 22 months at YTS before returning as an adult, working as a Vocational Instructor, and later as an Institutional Gang Investigator.

Berge recounts his time at YTS in part 4 of “Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS.” The project is personal for Reeve, a 49-year-old marketer by day and writer and photographer by night. He earns no money by telling their stories. As of now, he has published seven parts on Medium with more on the way.

“People have very tough decisions to make about criminal justice, juvenile justice and prison reform, but prisons remain a huge source of mystery, so what fuels those decisions,” Reeve said. “With ‘Gladiator School,’ we’re hearing from people that were there, which I think is the missing element.”

He wants to provide former wards, guards, teachers, and administrative staff at YTS the space to tell stories, some of whom have never had that chance, he said.

Both Teachers, Inmates Were Abused

Reeve lives 20 minutes from YTS, also known as the Heman G. Stark Correctional Facility. After discovering that his grandfather consulted for the prison, he tried to get a tour. It took months of persistent emails and letters to the state corrections department and using his family connection as leverage. Eventually, he was allowed entry in 2017.

“It didn’t look like a rehabilitative place,” he said. “It felt like a prison. It felt permanent.”

During the tour, Reeve snapped photos for what would become the first installment of “Gladiator School.”

The facility was opened in 1959 with the goal of educating and rehabilitating wards between the ages of 12 and 25. After a number of violent incidents that included the murder of a counselor in 1996 the state began scrutinizing the prison, he said.

Chris, aka “Child,” defended his Echo Park neighborhood as a member of the Westside Crazies in his youth. Gang affiliations defined enemies and allies on the street — and in prison.

A 2007 report released by the state’s inspector general found that wards spent 22 hours a day in their cells while wards in the transitional program were not assigned classes, despite being in the unit for three months. Wards and staff were in physical danger due to the environment, abundance of contraband and a broken health care system, the report said.

The state closed the facility in 2010, to cut costs, it said. Reeve said the violence and lack of reform forced the state to close it.

Today, the former juvenile prison sits empty. It’s staffed with a maintenance crew for upkeep, just in case the state decides to use the facility, he said.

Through his interviews and research, he’s heard of teachers who were abused, inmates who had to fight to protect themselves and guards who abused inmates and set up Friday night fights between wards.

‘Violence Was the Currency’

“It all becomes very complicated; it’s not good guys versus bad guys,” Reeve said. “There were well-intentioned people who appear to have gotten caught up in the madness.”

Some like Bruce Lisker were falsely accused. Lisker explains in part 7 how ineffective legal counsel resulted in him being sentenced to 26 years for his mother’s murder.

Violence was common at YTS. Lisker told Reeve there were five to 10 assaults a day. In one fight, the former CYA ward said he was given two black eyes.

“People were put in these violent situations because violence was the currency,” Reeve said. “If you didn’t display violence, you are going to become a victim of it, and we see it from the wards and the guards.”

Two years after Reeve published the photo essay of the facility, he went to the park in Yucaipa. He had gotten emails from former YTS inmates and wanted to meet them — maybe even write more about the prison.

At the reunion, he met Chuck Supple, the former state director of juvenile justice, who had flown from Sacramento to attend the picnic.

“He starts telling us a story that the Department of Juvenile Justice was moving out of adult prisons and into a health and human services category in the state,” Reeve said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law on Sept. 30, legislation to close the state Division of Juvenile Justice, and replace it with local alternatives.

“It was corrupt, it was horrible, and we continue to inch our way forward into more progressive forms of discipline and rehabilitation, and I’m happy to see that,” Reeve said. “I’m sure it’ll be criticized and debated, but it’s an attempt.”

With the juvenile system changing in California, he said it’s important to remember these stories so they aren’t repeated.

“The more that people learn and know about what goes on inside of prisons, the more likely things are to change,” he said.


Photos by David Reeve.

Featured image: Chris (aka Savage) told the story of being sent to “The Hole” in “Gladiator School” for hiding a shank under his mattress as a youth, when the prison broke out into a riot.

This story was first published by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

31 Comments

  • I was sent to YTS after I committed armed robbery in the summer of 1977 as a ward of the Los Angeles County foster care system. Was placed with an extremely abusive foster mother who beat me and my foster brother black and blue on a daily basis, to get away from her we committed the above crime. I served the sentence given me and moved on with my life. I’m a retired U.S. Army Ranger and I served seven combat tours. My experiences while in YTS gave me the edge that I needed to want more then I grew up with. If you knew how old I was at the time you wouldn’t believe me. It was a learning experience. This all coming to light is a long time coming.

  • Hello I was in the California’s Authority I was it Preston does a lawsuit going on about four awards that were there and can receive relief. If the images or a settlement of some kind because of the abuse us awards went through while there if you have information at all on the lawsuit that’s pending or was in the past that I could get compensation for please e-mail me at getrdonehauling@hotmail.com thanks my name is Greg Fawcett

  • Hello I was in the California’s Authority I was it Preston does a lawsuit going on about four awards that were there and can receive relief. If the images or a settlement of some kind because of the abuse us wards went through while there if you have information at all on the lawsuit that’s pending or was in the past that I could get compensation for please e-mail me at getrdonehauling@hotmail.com thanks my name is Greg Fawcett

  • I was a ward of the courts from 1990-1999. The system worked for me. Much love to all my broken friends who can’t be fixers. Have faith.

  • These places were atrocious. So many disgusting horrific stories my boyfriend would tell me. Totally messed him up and he had nightmares and began using drugs to quell his memories. These were juveniles. Where was the oversight? These men who survived should tell their stories any way they can. And absolutely someone should be held accountable. He was there at Chino from about ’93 to 2000. And most of the time he just couldn’t even talk about it as an adult. People need to know. And he died on Friday, Aug 13, 2021. And who should we see about that?

  • Came to yts in spring of 1968. Learned how get up go to work at the trade I learned(plumbing).
    Got my ged. Funny thing about any institution is guys will try you. You either take mess or you don’t.

  • So sad that Gangs fighting And drugs were more prevalent in CYA and other youth programs . My husband went through nearly every program through out CA and to be honest all it did was made him a better criminal not nurturing or love was given at all he is finishing his 27 th year was in pelican bay at 21 and has been to most adult prisons and is finishing his sentence tace in Folsom Prison as we speak 6 months from his out date and the only person that helped him was himself (oh and me )

  • I did the CYA tour 91-96.
    Man what a trip that was, the thought of the smell of mace and tear gas soaked blankets still makes my mouth water.And the thought of warm bologna sandwiches 3 times a day while doing a stretch in “the rack” at Preston def brings a half cocked smirk filled with a I’m bad mutha fu#@#$ attitude to my face!
    An eventful time of my life for sure….got after it the whole time and came thru good as one can be…
    C. Hood “64961”

  • Rough Times Back then. 92 93 94 95 Karl Holton Dewitt Nelson. I learned So much but got Negatively influenced because all there was is negativity going on around everywhere , Back then CYA was worser than Prison.

  • 62558 1992-1993 juniper ,buckeye shatout to the staff and to all the people who believed in me .my counselor senior oficer and my bakery supervisor .

  • Reading all these comments brought back memories, I was at Preston and yts they saved my life i was a active gang member and was giving a chance when i was at yts i was in the automotive trade and was selected to go to Fred c Nellis to work on county vehicles..i was driving County cars and trucks we fixed them. Ibwas there forba couple years. I was one of them real one who didn’t tell and I did the time for something I didn’t even do. Well that was 40 years ago. Ibwas on ironwood at Preston and KL at yts the auto mech instructor was called Doc we even developed a friendship after I was out. I went to his house a couple of times and met his family. He saved me he had all girls and he said working at yts gave him all the sons he could ever want. My yts number was 33XXX that’s how long ago it has been.

  • I went to Nrcc when I was 15 (1999)than Preston, Karl Holton, and Dewitt. It’s 2022 and still feels like yesterday. I was actively fighting, gang banging, throwing fucks, kicking off riots, Ironwood and tamarack programs. Seen grown men “guards” beat up little kids like men seen doctors prescribed my friends psych meds and fuck em up. Kids hang themselves. Kids bullied by other kids and beat to a pulp.. People stabbed hit in the face with locks. starved and neglected. It was normal. I broke down in the “rack” 1 time. I remember crying talking to myself , playing with the ants, playing marbles with peanuts from my lunch. Thats when they would make us roll up our mattress, blanket, and sheets( roll yo shit up!!!) at like 3 a.m until whenever. We where in the mountains of ione so it was freezing. I would have to do push ups to stay warm. The room was baby blue and the lights stayed on. You had a choice to take a shower in freezing water with hand dispenser soap. You had to jump in water and get wet for 5 seconds, jump out,, than soap up, than jump back in to rinse off. Than if you wanted the rest of your hour out your cell you can go outside in a cage and just get some fresh air and freeze your ass off.. ( I could talk for hours)Most people I was in there with are in prison or dead. I barely made it, but I’m here taking care of my 5 kids. I’ve been a Ironworker for about 14 years. We were tortured in there. I’m sure it fucked us up worse

  • To my brothers,
    Reading your stories not only brought back so many memories but also tears. 1997-2005 I remember my YA #81160 without any effort. The anger I felt, the violence, the heartlessness, the cages, the smell, the water, the blood, the impact of being shot by beanbag guns, the riots, 1 one 1’s, broken hands, the tension in the air just before it kicks off, staff assaults, drugs, alcohol, death. My neighbor who I spent half the night talking to through the vent died that night in his cell. They gave him the wrong meds..Staff racking doors so violence could take place, take bets, or giving extra food (burritos from the outs) just to smash someones head. In ts it was “gladiator school” and in Chad it was known as the “battle dome” we even had a real goat named billy as a mascot. in preston, a 90 day observation could turn into a 10 year stay depending on how old you was. If you were a female you went to Ventura. I was sent there because YA had nothing more to offer me pragmatically so they offered my college. As reluctant as I was I agreed as a vacation away from ts and chad. There I realized I wasn’t going to make it. Staff were so disrespectful that I refused to come out of my cell in fear of hurting one of them. I explained to them the way you talk to us will get you killed and me in prison for the rest of my life. I explained to them I was aware of them reading my file so you know why Im here (I was sent to YA for 1st Degree Murder). They sent a therapist in to talk to me. His name was Tim. God must of new I needed an Angel because I demanded to be transferred back to ts or chad. They was tim was able to engage me was life changing. Tim later explained to me I reminded him of an abused animal, ready to attack anything that got close to me. And he cried because even tim could see what that place had done to me. Tim gave me hope and encourage me to go-to school and get my AA. Just before i graduated from Oxnard community College, a number of female wards started coming up pregnant. So the kicked us out. Even with us gone, they still kept coming up pregnant.
    My transition back into society was rough. After 8 years of that crazy world many of my initial responses to little things people would do or even looking at me too long would cause my to go into a mode that I knew was not good. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I wanted to respond with absolute violence so bad and at the same time i internally didn’t really want to hurt anyone. One thing that place taught me was move first or be moved on. Til this day, I still struggle with it.
    I recently, went back in to O.H. close and Chad to work with some of coming back to Alameda County – Oakland. It was weird being back on the units Sacramento, kern, owens, paharo, American, Tuolumne – my old cells, the visiting hall, where I would see my family cry ass they left all the crazy shit came back. Memories of blood and even my neighbor that died. I even went back to his cell to pay respect and to let him know I new what happen.
    All of them who I was able to build a relationship with return to Oakland and was connected to support services all did very well. Then covid hit and I haven’t been back.

  • My deceased husband was at the CYA in Chino in the early 1970’s. He died of colon cancer at 53. Was there medical experimentation going on at that facility in the 1970’s. I would like to find out the answers for my two sons.

  • This is not a duplicate comment -I have never seen this website until today. My deceased husband was at the CYA in Chino in the early 1970’s. He died of colon cancer at 53. Was there medical experimentation going on at that facility in the 1970’s. I would like to find out the answers for my two sons.

  • Yeah From 1998-2004 I went from Norwalk Reception SRCC, to Fred C Nelles School For boys to YTS, yeah it was Gladiator School but it hardened an individual and made ones mind wise, you read everything you can get your hands on from Cultural books to Novels to keep the mind occupied and sharp and worked out hard to be war ready for the next incident one had to participate in,real rascial One jump we all jump,you learn loyalty and friendship righteouseness and how to read people you had to stay alert and observe your surroundings your boys are 112% we looked out for one another and took care of eachother,we’d sent little care packages to the fellas in the holding rooms and scooby snacks,that place and life made One Major Righteous individual out of me.

  • #66150;Definitely a gladiator school. Tons of memories some good and bad. But mostly a learning experience. I am 1%/1000 that made it in life. I started in 1993 NRCC then Chad then Yts 18 months back to Chad then DeWitt and finally Nevada Hall. End date 4/12/99 Thanx to all the counselors that believed in me,ie. Mrs. Vicky Contreras. Rip. Yolo I am a rehabilitated productive ex gangmember in society

  • I was sadden as I read this article it brought back so many memories to time I served while at YTS CYC 1991-1994. The time I served there would be the building blocks that developed many behaviors that I would have to unlearn as an adult to earn my freedom once more. After doing time in YTS CYA I went right to prison with a LIFE sentence for a gang related shooting and gang enhancements. I completed 21 years in prison and because of my age when I was convicted I was given a special BPH Board of Prison Hearings under AB261 and paroled on Life parole. I remember being referred to as a YA baby in prison due to going to CYA and consequently it came with a reputation to live up to. I no longer participate in self destructive behaviors/beliefs and have a career working as a substance use counselor at CRC Norco prison for Amity Foundation. If I only knew what I understand now maybe I would have never hurt so many people in my life especially my family. Redemption my brothers!

  • I did my time from the halls to arc to nelles then to yts. I ain’t gonna lie. I did ok in there. Because I ran a pretty straight program. I was a juvenile lifer. Sentenced till I turned 25. Fortunate enough to not get an L.

    To be dead on truthful, if you was playing politics and living that life style, then you were bound to get caught up in a mess. It was only a matter of time. Riots kicked off every week. Blacks vs Mexicans. Mexicans vs whites. All it took were some disrespectful words, and boom. We was back on lock down. Getting our cells searched and tossed up by the staff.
    The institution was filled with drugs. Every weekend, homies would come through from their visits. And the whole tier was Smokey. Lol. I was always a worker helping everyone out to get there fix.

    I was cool with everyone. Pretty much ran my own program. I had 3 solid homies that I would ride with. Everyone else was just associates. But man, I seen some crazy ass shit in all the institutions I visited! From inmates to staff to visitors to religious volunteers. I spent enough time there to see it all. I could write a book right now! Haha.

    But YA… didn’t make me who I am. It brought me to realize a whole lot. But at the end, every individual needs to want to change and make better decisions in order to come home a better man. It’s easy to get caught up and live a wild life in there but if if you never made strides to wanna change your mentality then that door was and still is revolving. Sucks but it’s true.

  • Errie memories. The despair. The smell, loneliness the gloomy days. Depression. Coming of age,puberty. Missing earlier happy times wanting to be accepted what Got me there by joining 18st gang. Less than year faced life as juvenile. 1978. 13 years old . I was sensitive pretending to be tough .
    Good counselors and creepy . Pretending to be very concerned to search after a visit for drugs by asking to spread cheeks and take long silent looks speeding my cheeks and not knowing how long or what’s he up to. At night peeping counselors at shower windows outside. It wasn’t so much violence as much as the predator adult counselors.

  • NRCC in 1996. Shipped to OH on the green dick. Then went to Karl Holton, then Preston. Then Chad lol. I went on a good 6 year tour. But i was only given 18 months. Man, them DDMS hearing had me shot down at every board hearing

  • Was in Nellies and Preston 79 til 81 learned to be a tough guy seen so many old friends in cya when I hit. State prison. Turned alot of good kids who had a chance into bad guys

  • Preston #81548. I’m 40 and still remember even the damn address. 201 waterman rd ione ca 95640. Tracy to Cedar to Greenbrier and spent most my time in the Rack. Chopin it up with the homies on the wire. Cold as fuck out on that bench in a thin jumpsuit in the cage to get air outside. Had that wall heater in the room that they said didn’t work. Roll up yo shit and had to use tolit paper to lay on the cold steal bed.

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