Gladiator School: Stories from Inside YTS (Ep 7)
“That Hell they put me in.”
Edited and photographed by David William Reeve
Editor’s note: This is Part 7 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, Bruce Lisker is accused of an unimaginable crime that casts him from the safety of his suburban Sherman Oaks home into a nightmarish new reality and the struggle to survive Gladiator School.
“That hell they put me in.”
I was pretty easy going. I wrote poetry. I liked girls. When I turned 16, my Dad purchased a ‘66 Mustang Coupe from an estate sale. That was my first car. I explored the city of Los Angeles in it. My parents gave me a Thomas Guide, and I would flip to a random page and say, “I’m gonna go there today,” and I would drive. Pasadena. Burbank. Woodland Hills. My world was expanding. I had this image of one day living in Studio City. I was pretty happy. I wasn’t depressed or anything, but usually a little bit stoned.
In May 1982, there was a point at which I was going to quit school. My attendance wasn’t good, so I was sent to a continuation school in Reseda, where I finally dropped out.
“If you’re gonna quit, you’re gonna get a job and get out on your own,” my Dad said.
My parents paid for an apartment on Sepulveda Boulevard. It was also to ease disagreements at home. Being a pothead — my mom didn’t like that — was a source of conflict in addition to the typical teenage stuff that was going on. I looked for a place to stay and found a $210-a-month apartment — the cheapest one in the newspaper. I moved out. My mom continued to do my shopping and laundry.
I got some money from my Dad, put gas in my tank, bought a pack of cigarettes and some transmission fluid. I had smoked pot that morning and done some speed with someone who came by my apartment. I was on a job hunt when one of the shock absorbers came loose on my car. I changed out of my job-hunting clothes and went to Builders Emporium, then to my parents’ house to borrow a jack to work on the car.
Normally when I showed up, the noise of my car would make the dog bark. Baby Doll was a loud little dog and that would bring my mom out. It was weird that she didn’t come to the door. After a minute, I walked around the side of the house and looked in the window. I could see her on the floor.
My mom was covered in blood. She had two knives stuck in her back. I just lost it. I couldn’t register that what I was seeing was true. I was terror-stricken; not even there. I fell to my knees beside her and could see she was still breathing. I took the knives out of her back, called for help, then called my Dad.
I was out of my mind. Hysterical… screaming… crying. When the paramedics arrived, they waited outside while the police did a protective sweep inside the house. I was pacing in circles in the driveway, unable to stand still when they told me to stop. They started questioning me, and later said I was trying to disturb the crime scene.
“Fucking help her!” I was freaking out. “Take her to the hospital, save her life!” Adrenaline, speed. I wasn’t able to stand still.
“We’re going to have to do this the hard way,” I thought I heard them say.
I felt an arm wrap around my throat. I was pulled backward onto my ass in a chokehold and handcuffed. That was the last time I saw my mom.
When they took the handcuffs off to interrogate me at Van Nuys Police Station, I saw my Mom’s blood still on my hands. I had been trying to do first aid.
“I need to wash my hands.”
“No,” I was told. For the whole duration of the interrogation, I was told no.
“Let me tell you what I think happened,” said LAPD Detective Andrew Monsue. “You went in the house through the kitchen window…. she surprises you there. You guys get into a big fight. You pick up the trophy off your desk that’s sitting there. You smack her in the head.”
“No, I wouldn’t do that!”
“She stumbles down the hallway. There’s a workout bar… You pick that up. You smack her and break her arm. She starts running… you get scared. You pick her up. You drag her in there, right by the front door. And then you stab her. How does that sound to you?”
Sometime after midnight they took me for a polygraph, and then told me I failed.
It was three o’clock in the morning, pitch black outside, and I was more frightened than I’d ever been. Detective Monsue was in the back of a police car with me, being driven to Sylmar Juvenile Hall. I’d heard about juvenile hall, but I was clueless.
They booked me in Sylmar and took me to a unit called Boy’s ICU — a cinderblock cell with white paint and a stainless-steel sink and toilet. The bed was a concrete slab with a mattress on it and two sheets, some underwear. I was crying. They locked me in, and I was alone. I wanted my Mom and Dad.
“How do you feel about being here at Sylmar?” a psychologist asked.
“Are you fucking kidding me? Leave the gate open and I’ll show you how I feel about being here at Sylmar!”
They gave me this glass with orange juice and Mellaril — a drug similar to Thorazine. I liked it because it was warm and numbing. Given all my emotional trauma, I appreciated that. Mellaril builds up in your system, and it gets harder to wake up. Before long, I was unable to put sentences together.
Visiting hours were on Sunday, and the first time my Dad came up.
“I didn’t do it!” I told him.
My Dad said, “I know.”
The Youth Authority told the judge I wasn’t showing adequate remorse for the murder. Because I was a juvenile, the judge ultimately decided I would be housed in Youth Authority until I turned 25, with an M Number, meaning I would later be transferred to adult prison. Adults commits with M Numbers were sent to YTS.
When I first got to YTS, they put me in S&T unit. The first night, I was looking around, and I couldn’t believe I was there. First arrivals were always sized up by the others. I was trying to put on a mask of toughness. They put me in a cell. I told myself a lie — that I was tough enough to survive this.
YTS was the most hardcore of the Youth Authority institutions. It was Gladiator School. I knew I couldn’t back down from fights, but I’d never been a fighter. I was scared shitless. Most of these kids grew up in gangs and loved to fight.
I had heard about all the YA rules when I was in juvenile hall. Whites can talk to Sureños. Whites can talk to Hispanics, but not the Blacks. If Blacks talk to you, you have to be on guard. My destiny would lay in how I conducted myself, every minute of every day.
We all came out for day room. Guards were in the control booth and the corners of the room. I looked at where the white guys were sitting and was told to sit with my own kind. The first two rows of soft-back chairs were Blacks. The third row was whites. The last row was the Southern Esés. I sat in the third row of soft-backs.
People would test you, and if you failed the test, you had smut on you and had to clean it up. It was a status thing. If someone saw you as weak, they would try to dominate you to earn status.
A white guy came over to me. He was a shot caller for the unit. People looked to him for answers and information. He starts asking me questions:
“Who are you down for?” he asked.
“I’m down for myself… for my race,” I responded. I’m not a racist at all and didn’t think I was better than anyone else, but at YTS you have to go along or you immediately become a victim, to your race as well as all the others.
The second or third time I came out for chow, the shot caller sent somebody else to come talk to me.
This was a Hispanic guy named Hueron. He was really big and had won trophies on the boxing crew. He’s just huge… a foot taller than me, and I was a small kid.
“What are you down for, Esé?”
I gave the same line… down for whites, down for me…
“You don’t look too down. What if I came to your cell?”
“Bring it!” I said, but I’m scared out of my wits; thinking God, don’t let this guy bring it.
“I’m gonna do that!” He was giving me the most menacing looks.
After chow, I go down to my cell and leave the door open, waiting. It’s nerve-wracking to think that somebody will come to my cell and I’m going to have to stand my ground. I literally didn’t know how to fight.
Then he closed his cell door. Maybe he didn’t want to fight?
I had become a born again Christian when I was in juvenile hall. I was reading my Bible, thinking God’s going to protect me. God had a protective bubble around me, like I can’t be harmed… I was praying hard. When in doubt, pray harder. I was waiting for Hueron to come down, but he didn’t.
Next day, the white guy comes up to me at chow again and says, “OK. You’re gonna fight Hueron. You go to his cell and get down, his cellie goes to your cell so headcount will add up. After you two box, you go back to your cell.”
I go into his cell and put my fists up. He knocks me down immediately, right on my ass. I get back up and try to throw a haymaker. He boxes me in the side of the head and just kicks my ass. He wins unequivocally. But I keep getting up, like five times.
I was getting dizzy. But I felt that I had to keep getting up or this guy was going to kill me in his cell. Staff didn’t know I was here, so they couldn’t help.
“You know what, Esé? You earned my respect,” he said. “None of these punk ass white boys in this building would’ve come to my cell and got down with me. You keep getting up. You got my respect.” He sticks out his hand.
My head’s hot and swelling, but I shake his hand.
“I’m gonna tell everybody you got my respect ’cause you came to my cell. Clean yourself up.” He points to the sink.
It’s a weird thing when two guys get in a fight. They gain each other’s respect. Even though this guy just kicked my ass I had this rapport with him, and it was somehow going to be good.
Then when I went back to my cell, I realized Hueron’s cellie went to my cell and stole my radio, my cigarettes… all my stuff. I knew exactly who to confront. I went back to the day room and sat down, not in the white’s row, but in the Southern Esé row.
I sat down next to him and said, “Check this out. You’re gonna give me my shit back, or the next person I fuck up is gonna be you!” Right about that moment, staff sees my black eyes and says, “Hey! Come here.”
“What happened to you?”
“I fell out of bed.”
“Are you on the top bunk?”
“No, I’m on the bottom bunk.”
“Look, you need to tell us what happened to you. Who did this to you?”
They didn’t believe my story.
After chow, everybody is back in their cells. Staff started going door to door, doing knuckle checks on everyone, front and back, looking for signs of a fight. They got to Hueron. His knuckles had my face marks on them. They put us both in the holding cells behind the control booths: him on one side, me on the other.
“Is that you, Esé?” Hueron asked when he saw me during our rec time. “Did you snitch?”
“I didn’t tell them nothing.”
“OK…OK… you sure?”
A staff member came back to talk to him and said I didn’t snitch; that I said I fell out of bed.
“But your cellie took my stuff, and me and him got a problem,” I followed.
The next day after chow, I’m walking down the hall, and I stop. Hueron appears. “Step into my cell,” he says.
He’s gonna fight me again. I can’t show any fear. He says some angry shit to his cellie, but I didn’t understand Spanish yet.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “You got my respect,” and his cellie starts pulling my stuff out. He loads me up with all of my shit that was stolen, and gives it all back.
They use the word respect in there, and there is respect. I believe Hueron respected me. But sometimes, when they used the word respect, they mean fear. But I had actual respect for Hueron. He was true to his word.
People tried to pin the nickname “Racoon” on me because I had two black eyes. Hueron was a regular there, and didn’t let people call me that. He said, “Don’t label him like that.”
Guards sanctioned fights all the time and I developed a complete mistrust for staff. They let the inmates run the asylum. YTS was training for prison. That’s how the kids looked at it. Everyone was trying to out-tough the wards around them. It was all based on fear… total survival mode. Put on a mask of fearlessness and hope for the best. I was scared every single day at YTS. And I had to do everything I could to maintain safety in that Hell they put me in.
Everybody knew this was the last stop before prison. As an M Number — an adult prison commit — my path was already clear. I would be sent across the field to Chino Men’s Prison. If YTS was this bad, what must be going on at Chino? There weren’t murders happening when I was at YTS, but assaults happened every single day — five, maybe even ten. Ward-on-ward stuff. It was just vicious. There was a huge percentage of the population that were established gang members or wannabees.
They would do these heart checks… tests of your courage, by crossing you a little bit. There were so many instigators. I could be walking along, and someone might walk across my path like 30 feet ahead of me. Suddenly someone would say, “You gonna let them do that to you? Man, are you gonna let them cut you off like that?”
Everyone is trying to appear tougher than they probably are to make themselves less of a target… and there’s a big fence around the place. You’re contained. There’s no getting out of it. It’s Hell. It’s PTSD-inducing. Every time you see someone get blasted in the face or get his ass kicked, you think, that could be me. That will be me!
I was praying the danger away until I got into the fight with Hueron, and I had two black eyes as a result. A few days after I got my ass kicked this Protestant Volunteer from juvenile hall came up to see me, like she’d promised she would.
“Praise God,” she said. “You’re going to be fine.” But I was like, “Fuck that. God didn’t protect me. I’m on my own here.” I let the whole religion thing go. My Dad showing up every week in the big visiting hall was my salvation. Dreaming about girlfriends and music kept me going, too. And letters.
One day when they were letting us all out for program, staff came and let my cellie go to the day room, but told me I had to stay in the cell. Then they slid this paper under the door.
It said that due to my best interests and programming needs they were sending me and most of the other M Numbers to adult prison; to the California Institution for Men in Chino. Going to a new place was the most dangerous thing you could do. They rounded us up and shipped us all out.
After Chino, I was sent to San Quentin State Prison. I wasn’t a tough guy. I was a smart guy. I got into Electronic Data Processing — a computer programming class — and was just doing my bit. I had been there for nearly two years and was settled in when Hueron comes rolling through. I’d come out for my lunch hour to spin laps around the lower yard track, and I see him sitting by himself on the wall beside the weight pile! I rolled over to him and said, “Hey!” and there was this immediate recognition; respect for our common past. He knows I’m a friendly. We aren’t aggressive. We shake hands. It’s all good.
A few years ago, I’d arrived at his place and found my way, and now he’d arrived at mine. We were fast friends even though he only stayed a couple of months at Quentin, just passing through. I had a guy I knew that lived in his block shoot him some toiletries and candy and soups to help him out. It’s hard landing in a strange place and not knowing anyone.
The one thing my Dad and I did right was to keep every scrap of paper. We kept every police report issued to us, every reporter’s transcript from every proceeding. At Mule Creek State Prison, I poured through those things day and night. I found 63 times the police lied or distorted facts in my case, and I created the “Lisker Case Analysis” — ninety-one pages of text and 791 footnotes — that I typed up myself. I had to document every single claim I was making with transcript references, ’cause no one’s gonna believe a prisoner otherwise.
My Dad stuck by me until his death in 1995. At that point, I had lost everything. He was my rock. I really grew up right then. He had life insurance, $184,000 that I was able to use to hire full-time investigators and lawyers. I eventually filed an LAPD Internal Affairs complaint, and lucked out when one honest sergeant took a fresh look at things. He ordered tests on the bloody shoeprints found in the house, and another foot impression on my Mom’s scalp.
Contrary to what the prosecution and Detective Monsue said, the footprints weren’t mine. I had been saying all along, I did not commit this crime. Now it was a matter of when, not if I was coming home. I wasn’t going to die in there.
Mike Ryan would sometimes sleep on the couch in my apartment. He used to have this throwing knife that he’d throw at the back of my door. He was obsessed with violence and had been in Youth Authority in Ventura before I met him. He went to my Mom’s house the day before she was killed, asking for money. I told Detective Monsue everything I knew about Ryan in 1983. He listened to what I had to say and located Mike, who had traveled to Mississippi after the murder, and where he’d been arrested for auto theft. Monsue returned from Mississippi and told the prosecutor that Mike had nothing to do with the crime.
Detective Monsue locked on and locked out. Mine was one of his first homicide cases. He locked onto one person as the suspect of a crime, me, and locked out any evidence that challenged that. This guy was trying to frame me.
Mike Ryan later kidnapped and tried to kill a woman in the Bay Area. He attacked a police officer and served even more time. In 1996, he turned in a dirty drug test to his parole officer. He did not want to go back to prison, and was probably feeling that his whole life was a failure. He left a suicide note saying sorry to his Mom, thanking the guy who let him live in his garage. He closed his note, “FUCK EVERYONE ELSE,” then shot up a deadly dose of heroin.
I had a pretty normal early childhood. I grew up in Sherman Oaks, in this lovely little pocket neighborhood between Haskell, Orion and the 101 Freeway. Now I drive past every once in a while, to see my old street and how things have changed. I used to ride my skateboard on the sidewalk. All up and down the street were people I knew. Next door, my neighbor’s dad did management work for The Eagles, Boz Scaggs, and Three Dog Night. This is where I grew up. This was my house. This was my home.
I parked my car here and was going to work on it. My Mom was lying inside. As the police were here trying questioning me, I was looking at her and freaking out, pacing in circles. The officer came up behind me and choked me to the ground. He handcuffed me and took me to his car. A fire truck was across the street. I saw them bring my Mom out on the gurney, loading her in, bound for Encino Hospital.
“The detective wants to talk to you,” Officer Johnson said.
They took me out, walked me across the street, and put me in another car headed for Van Nuys Police Department. That was the last time I saw my house for 26 years, for 9,653 days.
Bruce Lisker was falsely accused of killing his mother, Dorka Lisker, on March 10, 1983. He served more than 26 years, including stays at Sylmar Juvenile Hall, Eastlake Juvenile Hall, Youth Training School (YTS), California Institution for Men, San Quentin State Prison, and Mule Creek State Prison. His conviction was overturned in a 2009 ruling by the US District Court, which stated that his murder conviction was obtained through false evidence and ineffective assistance of counsel. Bruce was freed on August 13, 2009 and all remaining charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. In 2015, a multi-million-dollar settlement was reached in a lawsuit Bruce filed against the City of Los Angeles in which he accused Detective Andrew Monsue and others of fabricating the evidence that led to his wrongful conviction and incarceration. Today, Bruce lives as a free man in Southern California.
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