Colorado Prison Blues

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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!"

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Jessica Centers