Colorado Prison Blues

Eric Reynolds may be a 29-year-old man, but he still looks like a teenager, even a kid. His face is smooth and unlined, his body small and lithe at 5'5" and 120 pounds. If it weren't for the green jumpsuit with his name and Department of Corrections number over his chest, he'd seem naive, even innocent. His wide blue eyes swell red as he explains that he fears life outside prison walls almost as badly as he wants a chance to experience it.

Eric hasn't known a day of freedom since he was thirteen.

As August 15 -- the date of his fourth annual parole hearing -- nears, Eric wishes he knew a way to make the state understand the circumstances that got him here. If the board gives him the time to explain, he'll start at the beginning. He should never even have been in Colorado.

On Christmas Eve 1984, Eric Reynolds was waiting for Santa Claus with a babysitter at his Chicago home when his parents were struck and killed by a drunk driver. The seven-year-old's only remaining family was a 61-year-old great-aunt. She wanted custody of the child, but Eric says that because of her age, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services instead placed him in a series of group homes, foster homes and mental institutions.

When Eric was eleven, he ran away and joined a gang. He had already been in trouble for burglary and auto theft when, at thirteen, he led cops on a high-speed chase and wrecked the stolen car he was driving. That was 1990, when the IDCFS was sending its worst juveniles to out-of-state facilities because Illinois didn't have any "intensive secure" centers of its own. Eric's probation officer told him he was going to a place in Colorado with horses and weekend programs.

The High Plains Youth Correctional Center in Brush was a private, 180-bed facility 125 miles east of Denver. There was no rehabilitation program, nor were there any horses, and only a weak attempt was made at schooling. Fights and stabbings were the norm, and "restraining" inmates often involved guards using their fists. Eric had braces on his teeth when he got to the facility, and he asked repeatedly if he could get them removed, because his brackets were breaking. He waited months before yanking them off with a pair of toenail clippers.

In late 1995, Illinois officials visited High Plains unannounced. The subsequent report by Ron Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was scathing and led Illinois to pull all of its kids from the facility. The report also sparked a Dateline NBC exposé and was used in a Human Rights Watch analysis of youth corrections in Colorado. Davidson's account described "a consistent and disturbing pattern of violence, sexual abuse, clinical malpractice and administrative incompetence at every level of the program." Adolescent boys were having sex with female staff members, who were also smuggling in narcotics and pornography. Davidson was, he wrote, "appalled by the complete failure of Colorado's child-welfare authorities to identify and remedy these shameful (and in some cases unlawful) conditions." Every member of his review team concluded that the children were at risk of physical and emotional harm at High Plains and should be removed as quickly as possible. Colorado eventually shuttered the facility.

Nearly two years before High Plains was exposed, Eric and another inmate "got into it" with some guards. After the fight, they decided it was time to run. The next day, they dirtied up a classroom with spit wads and paper, knowing they'd be caught and have to return to clean the mess. Guard Jennifer Brennan came by at 8:30 p.m. on February 15, 1994, to take them to the room. "She was one of the nicer ones that worked there that didn't really bother anybody," Eric says.

While Brennan watched, seventeen-year-old Eric and his fifteen-year-old partner vacuumed and tried to look like they were cleaning as they waited for a second guard to peek in and pass by. Once he was gone, Eric pulled a knife on Brennan and told her to give him the keys and let them tie her up. Instead, she hit him, ready to put up a fight. The other kid grabbed and held her. "It was like a split second, and I wasn't even thinking," Eric says. "When they asked me how many times I stabbed her, I said I didn't even remember. They said I stabbed the guard ten times in the chest."

Eric took a step back and froze while the guard struggled with his partner. He watched while the kid tried to strangle the woman with a telephone cord. "She was almost dying, you could tell," he says. "And I pulled it away, and I told him 'No.' I said, 'Come on, let's get the keys. Let's go.' He snapped, too. He was trying to kill her. I told him that wasn't part of the plan." Eric threw the phone on the floor, and his partner tried to tie up the guard. When she bit his finger, he started to strangle her again. Eric pulled the cord away a second time, and the two managed to finish tying her up.