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.

They made it through two doors and into a weight room with a garage door, but they couldn't open it. Realizing their fate, the boys waited, covered in blood, for the police to swarm. It took only a few minutes. "It was pointless," Eric says. "We didn't even make it out of the facility."

Brennan survived, and her attackers were both sentenced to 24 years.

Eric was eighteen by the time he got to the Colorado State Penitentiary and was put in 23-hour lockdown for the next five years. For one hour a day, five days a week, he could leave the isolation of his 83-square-foot cell and enter a larger room where fresh air was let in through a grate. "It's hell. It feels like everything's closing in on you. It feels like you're trapped and you can't do nothing," he remembers. "I still wake up at night and look around. Being in there that long did something to my head where I wake up at night sometimes and still think I'm in there."

For the first two years, Eric was "just there," causing problems with guards when he got the chance. But then he realized "it was either start bettering myself or die in prison." He could only read and do math at a fourth-grade level, but he decided to get his GED. Since he was in isolation, teachers would just drop off books outside his cell. Still, he managed to learn the material, get his GED and start doing community-college work.

When his five years of isolation were finally up, Eric started the process of re-entering the prison population by going through the Progressive Reintegration Opportunity (PRO) Unit program. He was about to graduate from the unit when staff members noticed there was a piece of mesh missing from a speaker in his cell door. They sent him back into isolation for another year. "I almost snapped; I almost gave up," he says. "It was hard for me to cope knowing I had to do another year in hell." But he did, and then finished the PRO Unit.

In the spring of 2002, Eric was sent to the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. It was a hard adjustment after being alone for six years. He was paranoid, always looking over his shoulder. Inmates knew he was from a gang, but he told them he wasn't affiliated anymore. He fought when he had to. He was raped once and had a rib broken. "I don't cause problems, but if problems come to me, I deal with them," Eric says. "I ain't going to let someone hurt me or push me around. I get along with everybody. It doesn't matter what gang you're from, who you are, what race you are. That's basically the only way to survive in here. You could survive other ways, but you're going to be spending the rest of your life in lockdown."

Eric has been in five facilities since then. About two years ago, he was sent to his first minimum-security prison, Skyline Correctional Center in Cañon City. It was too much freedom, too many loud, disrespectful guys who had never done hard time. Eric told his case manager that if she couldn't get him a transfer, he was going to put himself in "the hole," or isolation. He got a "mental health" move the next day to Four Mile Correctional Center, also in Cañon City.

It was at that prison that Eric got to know G K Isley, who had answered an ad for a pen pal that Eric's aunt had placed just before she passed away in 2005. The correspondence developed into daily phone calls, and as Isley learned more about Eric's history, he began to piece together the circumstances leading to his current situation. The more he learned, the angrier he became. "Eric's whole life story and society's response in dealing with him stinks," he says.

"I became outright enraged when I recently learned the gory details of events at the High Plains Youth Center, and how they destroyed any chance of a life for him," Isley adds. "With his fourth hearing imminent, I became determined to do whatever it takes to get him out of Colorado and into a life he deserves. When other kids were playing soccer and Little League or on the swim team, Eric was already incarcerated. When his contemporaries were getting their driver's licenses and starting college, Eric was in prison. It didn't have to be that way. Any rational person can see that society owes Eric Reynolds a break, big time!"

Isley has written to Governor Bill Owens, the parole board and every advocacy group he can think of that might be compelled to fight for Eric. "The moral injustice of it all is beyond imagination," he wrote to Owens.

He has forced Eric to start thinking about leaving prison, about making plans, about "out there." Isley, who owns a food-service business in Southern California, has even offered to give Eric a job when he is released. "Before I met him, after my aunt passed away, I almost didn't want to get out," Eric says. "It's just hard whole life I've spent in here. It's hard to have goals. I live day to day. To stay mentally sane in here, you have to block out the world out there and not think about it."

Recently, Eric decided he was ready to try again at a minimum-security prison, which would let him have a job and, he thinks, offer better chances of making parole. He requested a transfer to the minimum-security Camp George West in Golden. Instead, he was transferred to Sterling Correctional Facility, a Level 5, meaning the highest-security-level prison. "They say it's a progress move," he says. "I don't understand how it's a progress move." Of even more concern is that he recognizes some of the same guards at Sterling who worked at High Plains, just thirty miles up the road.

DOC spokeswoman Patti Micciche says that transferring Reynolds to Camp George West is not in the public's best interest: "His placement on the east side/minimum yard at Sterling is an appropriate placement for him due to his risk of flight and assaultive past."

As he talks about his August 15 parole hearing, Eric fights back tears. He says he knew another inmate just months away from getting out who chose to stab a guy so he wouldn't have to leave. He doesn't want to end up like that, but he fears that if he spends too many more years inside, he won't want to go.

He's grateful that Isley has offered to give him work. "He'd be able to give me guidance, help me to get on my feet, help me to do things that I don't know how to do," Eric says. "But if the parole board keeps turning me down...he's 67 years old. How much longer is he going to be around?"

Eric wishes he had never hurt Jennifer Brennan. He knows it was wrong. He knows he deserved to go to prison. "But, I mean, when's enough time?" he asks.

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Jessica Centers