By Mark Ackerman and Dillon Thomas
CANON CITY, Colo (CBS4) – Nine convicted killers at the Fremont Correctional Facility in Canon City are now preparing for life after prison. They are part of a select group of inmates that gets to experience life on the outside, while still behind bars, through the use of virtual reality technology.
Inside a classroom in the medium security prison, the inmates put on virtual reality headsets to learn how to do simple tasks that most of us take for granted.
Cullin Barnes’ headset provided him with an immersive experience inside a laundromat where he had to use a debit card for the very first time.
“I used to go to the laundromat with my mom,” said the 41-year-old Barnes. “But, we always used cash.”
Pairing physical actions with the video playing in his headset, Barnes quickly learned to separate his whites, add detergent, and properly do his laundry. In the process, he learned the differences between using a card instead of cash.
Through the virtual reality experiences, the inmates are challenged with a multitude of scenarios like job interviews, conflict resolution and alcohol avoidance.
The goal is to get inmates like Barnes and Eric Davis, 50, ready to re-enter society.
“We hear about smartphones or debit cards or job interviews,” said Davis. “But really we don’t experience any of that on a daily basis.”
That’s because Davis went to prison before anyone had cellphones or the internet. Top Gun was at the top of the box office and Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
In 1986, Davis moved away from his family in Idaho Springs to live in Denver with admittedly very few life skills.
“Literally, I was just trying to find a way to get money, feed myself, party and chase women,” he said.
That lifestyle led to armed robbery. During a robbery attempt, Davis shot and killed Larry Johnson near Southwest Plaza Mall.
Johnson was a restaurant worker taking the weekend’s earnings to the bank.
“Because I was greedy and wanted something that he happened to be carrying,” he said. “I took him from his mother, his wife and his son.”
Davis was still a teenager when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
It was a similar story for Barnes, who never learned to drive, never dined at a restaurant, other than McDonalds, before spending his entire adult life incarcerated.
When he was just 16, he broke into this neighbor’s Aurora townhome and killed her.
Barnes stabbed Lorraine Tillman to death with a kitchen knife.
“I was looking in the mirror and I was kind of afraid of my reflection,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what I had just done. It was like it wasn’t me.”
Barnes was tried as an adult and sentenced to 84 years in prison.
He says he thinks about his victim and her family every day.
“I can’t say sorry enough,” said a sobbing Barnes.
But Barnes, and the others who killed as kids, may be getting a second chance.
The Supreme Court struck down life sentences for juveniles, and in 2016 Colorado Lawmakers created a pathway to freedom.
The legislature passed a bill that said after serving 20 years behind bars, the inmates must complete a three-year course, go before a parole board and then get sign off from the governor before any of them are released.
Just participating in the class has provided hope for Davis and the eight other virtual lifers.
“The thing that has never been a reality, freedom, is now maybe a reality,” he said. “I can’t explain what it’s like to feel like you are going to die in prison.”
Davis knows his release may still be a long shot, but now he has a chance. After spending more than 30 years behind bars he could be released as early as 2020.
“If I spend my whole life in prison, I get it,” he said. “I killed a guy, and I’ll make the best of my life in here.”
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.