By Mark Ackerman and Dillon Thomas
CANON CITY, Colo. (CBS4) – They thought they’d die in prison, but now a group of inmates serving life sentences are getting a unique look at how life on the outside has changed since they have been incarcerated.
Cullin Barnes, 41, of Aurora, was sentenced to 84 years behind bars after committing murder when he was just 16 years old. He pleaded guilty to killing his neighbor Lorraine Tillman with a kitchen knife during a robbery attempt.
Now, Barnes’ life sentence, along with a handful of others, will be up for review after state lawmakers passed a juvenile justice bill in 2016.
To prepare Barnes and other inmates for their potential release, the Colorado Department of Corrections has started a three-year training program to help acclimate the men to life outside the Fremont Correctional Facility where they’ve spent most of their adult lives.
“I have hope now. I thought I was going to die in here,” Barnes told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas in a prison interview.
Part of the training program includes using $1,500 taxpayer-funded virtual reality headsets.
The inmates run through a variety of scenarios – with software provided by a company called NSENA which includes tasks like doing the laundry, using a debit card and going on a job interview.
“The last time I did laundry I was a little kid and used quarters,” said Barnes, who after 25 years in prison has never driven a car or eaten at a restaurant except for McDonalds as a child.
The goal of the program is to get men like Barnes and Eric Davis, who committed murder during an armed robbery in 1986, ready to return to society.
“We hear about debit cards and job interviews we don’t have any experience with that,” said Davis who said he grew up behind bars.
“I’m not that 16-year-old kid that was running wild,” said Barnes who still thinks about that time in his life, and the murder, every day.
“I was looking in the mirror, at myself, afraid of my own reflection: I couldn’t believe that I had just did that,” Barnes said.
And when Thomas asked Barnes if he thought about his victim and her family, Barnes broke down in tears.
“I’m so sorry,” he said quietly to himself as he sobbed.
After the inmates graduate from this three-year program they will go before a parole board. Then the governor will have final say if they are released. The earliest that could happen would be 2020.
Dillon Thomas is a reporter at CBS4 and a Colorado native. He believes everyone has a story, and would love to share yours! You can find more of his stories by following him on Twitter, @DillonMThomas.