“Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS” is 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 — 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, John (aka Cool Breeze) returns to YTS years after his incarceration to find employment there as a schoolteacher.
“How soon will I know?”
“This is John Woods calling. I want to offer you the position of Vocational Instructor of Warehousing at YTS. Do you accept the position?”
“Yes, I will. You don’t have to ask me twice.”
“When can you start?”
I got off the phone. Alice and all three of my kids did the happy dance in the family room. It was a big deal. Praise the Lord, God did this. We knew in our hearts it was God blessing us for whatever reason. We just felt that.
My first day was going through the orientation process. They called me down to the security office and issued me a full set of keys for the institution. I got those keys on my belt and felt, my god, how things have changed. I went into my classroom and was looking at all these guys in white t-shirts and jeans. I wanted to show them how to make life work for them like I had done. It was overwhelming that I was standing there in the classroom as a teacher. It took me a while to come to terms with this and the whole evolution that allowed this to happen.
I said to them, “Ten years ago I was sitting in the same place you are sitting.”
As a kid, going down Euclid Avenue toward the beach with my family, we’d go by the Youth Trade School facility. My Dad would crack jokes as we passed, saying, “Johnny, if you don’t straighten up, you’re gonna end up there.” He’d just laugh.
In 1969 the Ontario Police Department arrested me for residential burglary. They needed to clear up some burglaries that I may have been involved in. Through my information, they were able to clear up about 20 burglaries in the area and said they would make a note of my assistance to the prosecutor. I was released on my own recognizance.
I had a little bit of a drug habit at the time and jumped back into doing what I was doing without thinking too much about the consequences. I ended up going to a party with a friend of mine and we got really wasted. We got in the car to leave the party and were driving down Grove Avenue in Ontario and ran into a railroad crossing signal. I looked over to see if my friend was alright… he wasn’t in the car. I located my friend and hurried down to a gas station to clean the blood off. I get arrested pretty quickly that day for DWI and causing bodily injury to a person.
I had turned 18 by this point and the judge committed me to the California Youth Authority. As an 18-year-old, it was unusual to go to CYA, but my previous work in helping the police clean up those burglary cases might have helped.
The first day I got to YTS, I was on Unit One in B11. I put all my stuff in there and kept thinking about what my Dad told me and I sat on my bed and wept for some time. I was asking myself these questions and had some inner turmoil. That’s when I started making some decisions about my life to not allow things to get out of control.
That night I was laying in my bunk and I hear this tapping on my window. The window was open with about 8 inches of space. The inmate from the room next to me asked my name and I told him. He said, “I know you’re white… are you down with the white race?” He handed me a piece of paper and it was a manifesto and ran down the rules for the white guys. I decided that if I got caught up in this, I would never get out of here. I crumpled it up and threw it back out the window. “Thanks for the heads-up, but I’m not interested.”
I met a Youth Councilor whose name was Tony Beltran. I used to see him come to work every day and he always had a smile on his face. He was dressed very nicely. I asked, “Why are you so different than these other people?” He shared with me that he had an experience with God and that’s what made a difference in his life. He encouraged me to find my way spiritually which I did.
I started to become involved in church activities. At night after lockdown, Tony would let us out of our cells. We’d sit in the day room and talk about God and religion. We were known as the religious zealots and called “Juice Wards,” because some councilor or staff member liked us. To have that designation was a benefit because if you’re messing with a Juice Ward, staff would come down on you. As a Juice Ward, you pretty much had the ability to go anywhere within the institution without a pass.
During these late-night counseling sessions, we’d be reading our Bibles and praying. Tony was our spiritual advisor. He had us going into this mop room, which was converted into what I’d call a prayer room. We’d pray with staff members at night and put hands on their shoulders. That was a good experience.
I got to know the Chaplain pretty well. I made a life for myself that involved community service; It was cathartic; I had a sense that I was actually contributing to the larger community. Being available for God’s work was a good thing. That was my mindset.
My parole Agent, Mr. Hooper dropped me off at my house. I didn’t just open up the door and go in. I knocked on the door. My sister gave me a big hug. I didn’t have a big homecoming and they didn’t really know when to expect me. My father had his own issues he was dealing with. At the time, I just thought he really didn’t give a shit.
The first thing I did was to go to Chaffey High School and ask about taking the GED examination. When I was at YTS they had academic classes: English, math, civics, and ethics studies. I was never one to be able to sit in a classroom. I had some issues and didn’t participate as much as I should have, but it did prepare me to take the GED.
I got my results pretty quickly and passed the GED and was pretty impressed with myself. I went to local community college and enrolled in criminal justice classes. I felt like an outcast in college. I was an ex-con; all these other students went to high school and prom. My self-esteem was not very strong at that point. I got a job at a furniture factory working in the production office. My job was to stand by this pallet every day and stack pieces of wood.
I had been corresponding with a girl by the name of Alice while I was locked up. She said, “When you get out, give me a call.”
By the time I got out I didn’t have the self-confidence to call her and say I’m that prisoner, what’s up?I had nothing. I didn’t have a way to take her anywhere, so I felt pretty insignificant at that point.
My mother read in the newspaper that my friend at the institution, Tony Beltran, had died. I was supposed to call him when I got out and I never did. He had some heart attack and died shortly after I got out. It blew my mind. He was my mentor.
I remembered that Alice was a woman of faith and maybe I could just talk to her. We talked on the phone for a while. She invited me to church and showed up Sunday morning. The Pastor had a really small store front church and some Bible thumpers. Everyone knew each other. The pastor stands up and says, “Do we have anyone new here today?”
Alice says, “This guy here.”
They all found out later that I had just got out of prison. They said they would support any efforts I did at making a better life for myself. It turned out to be a good support system.
My Dad went with me to get a car and I ended up getting a green Austin Healy — a used one. Really cool sports car. I had just got paid so it was time to take Alice on a date. I called her up and said, “Do you want to go down to the ocean with me?” I went to her house and picked her up and drove down to the beach. On the way I had to go down Euclid Avenue passing YTS. My car started stalling out. I pulled over and stopped the car in front of the prison. I didn’t know anything about cars, but I got out acting like I knew what I was doing. I lifted the hood and saw one of the cables was loose. Closed the hood and said, “I fixed it!” She was impressed.
Looking at YTS, I said, “Man, I hope I never go back here. If I ever go back here, it’s going to be to work. I’ll never be an inmate again.”
We continued down to Highway One near San Clemente Beach and there was a little shack by the side of the road. She says, “Look they’ve got smoked salmon over there.”
“One of my favorites,” I said. We had a few things in common.
We were sitting there eating. She was so pretty, so gorgeous. I thought maybe I should try to kiss her, but I had salmon on my breath. She did too, but anyway.
She invited me to dinner the following Saturday. She was living in her own apartment on student aid. She had made homemade beef stroganoff. I thought I’d died and went to heaven. “Do you cook like this all the time?”
She had a smile that could steal your heart.
I was a failure at selling cars. It was difficult for me getting someone to sign on the dotted line when they couldn’t afford what they were committing too. I overthought everything, but I tried that for a year. It was going nowhere. A friend of mine from the church knew a job where I could work in an ice cream freezer making $6.50 an hour. We called it, “pulling ice cream.”
I became a hero in my neighborhood because every Thursday we’d get two free bags of ice cream at the job. I even bought a freezer for the garage to put all the ice cream in. All the neighborhood kids always had ice cream and would come down to the house.
One Sunday, I was reading the newspaper, looking for employment opportunities. There was an ad that said they were looking for a Vocational Warehousing Instructor at YTS. I had been a warehouse supervisor for a little over three years and had developed some safety training programs for them. I told Alice, “I think I might be able to get a job at YTS.” I wanted to work there because of a kinship with the guys that were locked up there.
I went down to the institution and couldn’t believe I was walking through those doors as a free man. I had super confidence by this time; I could do anything I tried to do. A guy named John Woods met me in the front reception area and gave me an application and job description.
“Just mail it back and you’ll be hearing from us.”
I thought, that’s not enough. I need more than that today.
“Mr. Woods, I’d like to see the warehouse classroom that I’ll be teaching in when I get the job.”
“Wow, you sound pretty confident.”
He takes me back to the education area and introduces me the person who was the part time instructor in the warehouse classroom. I went into that classroom and immediately recognized it. “Do you have a book of your curriculum? I’ll need that to develop a class.”
I didn’t tell anybody that I had been locked up there.
I get a letter that I made the first cut. I was one of 25 that applied for the job and some already had a role at YTS.
I went to the initial interview and had prepared my own curriculum for the classroom. I did tell them that I had been a ward and about the people I knew that worked at YTS. I mentioned Tony and that I knew the Chaplain.
They were impressed that somebody took the time to come in with a prepared curriculum. One of the interviewers said, “Let me give you a scenario. What would you do if you were in a classroom and all of the sudden one of the inmates stands up and says, “Fuck you?”
“I’d put myself in the shoes of the inmate.” All the questions they asked me I had responses for. When I was done with the interview, I said, “how soon will I know?”
John Berge, aka “Cool Breeze” served 22 months in the California Youth Authority from age 18, including time at YTS and Deuel Vocational Institution. He returned to YTS in 1986 where he was employed for 18 years as a Vocational Instructor and later as an Institutional Gang Investigator. As a Gang Investigator, he authored a resource manual and worked alongside the Los Angeles Police Department and San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department in developing gang intervention programs. In 1992, he developed classes on corrections and prison gangs for Mt. San Antonio College and Chaffey College, where he worked as a part-time professor. He and Alice eventually divorced, but their three kids each contribute to society in valuable ways. Today, John manages a group home that helps young men transition out of prison and make a healthy return to society.
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