January 10, 2016 - 1:40 am
Curtis Collins knows his story won’t engender much sympathy from society. Few people shed tears for convicted killers.
It was a long time ago, but Collins was a boy once. He was a 15-year-old sophomore at Eldorado High on Aug. 26, 1990, when he used a pistol to end a running feud with 16-year-old junior Donnie Lee Bolden. The killing occurred in the school’s cafeteria and remains the only on-property student-on-student homicide in the history of the Clark County School District.
The shooting caused a front-page sensation in the local press and alarm and indignation throughout much of the community. Collins wasn’t a street waif. He came from a hardworking, two-parent family, was a member of the the Eldorado ROTC and had no criminal record. But all bets are off once the bullet leaves the barrel.
Two families were shattered, and the lives of two boys ended that day.
Collins began serving a life sentence about the same time most kids take their first driver’s test. He’s 41 now. Although technically a free man, he remains on lifetime supervision.
“I think about that every day,” he said recently. “And I think about what I been through. Prison, that’s where I grew up at, that kind of messed me up, especially being a little kid going to an adult prison. Seeing what I seen, that kind of messed me up in the head.”
Young offenders sentenced today are segregated from the general prison population, but when Collins went inside, he said, he was thrown to the wolves. “You just get on the yard and do it the best way you know,” he said.
That’s one of the ironies of his experience. Although police called the shooting gang-related, Collins said he wasn’t affiliated with a street gang until after entering prison.
Splitting his hard time between the ancient state penitentiary in Carson City and the newer High Desert facility in Southern Nevada, he spent 15 years in prison before being released on permanent parole. That was 11 years ago.
Although increasingly controversial and considered constitutionally questionable, lifetime supervision is still common for convicted sex offenders.
Nor is Collins unique as a killer with a lifetime collar. Marcus Dixon, who committed murder as a 14-year-old in 1998, had his 40-year prison sentence reduced by the State Pardons Board in 2014. He was paroled with lifetime supervision.
But some may be left to wonder whether the same state officials who showed compassion by releasing men who committed murder as boys have made their failure in society almost certain by assigning endless parole.
For his part, Collins took courses in prison and continued in programs once he gained his release, all in hope of landing a job that would enable him to move forward with his life.
“I spent the first couple of years doing nothing but going to school, going to programs that’s supposed to help ex-offenders get back in society,” he said. “But the truth was they was nothing, but meant to help them get a piece of federal money to run the program. All the jobs we found we had to find on our own.”
Some would-be employers didn’t admit they were rejecting his work application for the obvious reason; others were more candid in acknowledging that it was against policy to hire a killer.
Getting caught lying about a felony conviction and his parole status on a job application could get him returned to prison. Telling the truth almost guaranteed his application would be rejected.
“Being truthful, I lost a lot of jobs,” he said.
But during Southern Nevada’s economic boom, good-paying construction jobs were available, even plentiful, and not every contractor was frightened off by Collins’ prison background. He worked as a flagger, toiled in pre-apprentice programs, learned to drive commercial vehicles. But he couldn’t travel outside the state, and when the jobs went elsewhere during the recession, he remained behind scuffling at car washes and recycling centers.
The answer after more than a decade of state supervision is to revisit his case and rewrite his parole, but Collins can’t afford a lawyer to run that legal marathon. And so he works part-time for minimum-wage and lives with his long-suffering father, Will Collins.
“He’s done his time to society,” Will Collins said. “He was only a child to begin with when it happened. He came out and has been working whenever he can. … Keeping him on lifetime parole, they’re setting him up to fail. I want to be there to fight for him because nobody else is going to do it.”
Curtis Collins isn’t looking for sympathy. He can’t reasonably expect it. He’s looking for work. And his personal story is instructive in a society increasingly populated by citizens with felony records.
The lives of two teenage boys ended that day.
The question is, what do we do with the one who walks among us?
— John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Contact him at 702-383-0295, or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.