DEER LODGE — On a chilly morning at the State Prison in Deer Lodge, the first person before the state Board of Pardons and Parole was Nathaniel Leeson, a 32-year-old inmate from Great Falls, who’d just blown his parole.
Leeson, serving time for operating a meth lab, had been sent to a prerelease center in Billings, where he was to be paroled if he completed the community program in several months.
But he bought a cellphone, a violation of prerelease center rules. When prerelease staff asked him to turn it in, he broke it in half, earning him a trip back to prison.
“I was lonely,” he told the board, when asked why he bought the phone. “I was just upset about it. I said, ‘If I can’t have it, nobody can.’”
After a brief discussion, the three-member board rescinded his parole, but then granted it again — if he can return to a prerelease center, follow its rules and complete its program.
“These are just simple rules,” said board member Peter Lawrenson. “C’mon, it’s time to shape up here.”
“I was getting enrolled in school; I was getting ready to have a job and a career,” Leeson said. “I can’t believe I did what I did.” As he gets up to return to his cell, he thanks the board members for the second chance.
Leeson is among 29 inmates the board would interview that day for possible parole or rescission of an earlier parole.
A week earlier, the board saw 18 inmates at the privately run Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.
Half of these inmates will be denied parole. Another half-dozen will have their paroles rescinded. And 18 will get parole, although most must go through a program — prerelease, treatment, prison boot camp — before they’re released.
Parole board members, who are volunteers appointed by the governor, spend many hours each month conducting hearings at prisons and other correctional facilities around the state. They are paid travel expenses and a $75 per-diem on hearing days and $50 for research days.
Sometimes they get a “thank you” for their work. Often they do not.
Later that day in Deer Lodge, the board considered parole for Christopher Steglich, of Billings, who killed a passenger when he crashed his motorcycle in 2008 while high on alcohol and drugs. He’s served nearly six years of a 15-year sentence.
Steglich’s mother and sister were there to support him, but Debbie Clevenger, the sister of the victim, Mary Ryan, testified against his parole via video link from Billings.
“You left her there, by herself, on the grass, not knowing if she would live or die,” Clevenger said. “May 8, 2008, is a black day in our family’s history.”
Steglich quietly cried, saying there is “nothing I could say to say how sorry I am for what I did.”
Board chairman Mike McKee told Steglich his parole was denied, but that the board endorses him for a treatment program, and he can return in two years. Steglich’s relatives left the hearing room in tears.
Minutes later, the board heard another emotionally charged case: Convicted rapist Joe Baughman, who has served 27 years of a 100-year sentence for kidnapping and raping a woman near Cut Bank.
Baughman said he’s not “the monster that I was way back then,” and asked to be paroled so he can live with his aging mother, who attended the hearing.
Yet his victim and the Glacier County attorney appeared in person, too, arguing against his release.
“Even if my assailant has been a model prisoner, who’s been in prison for most of his adult life, how do you know it’s enough?” said the victim. “The judge made it clear that he thought this man was a danger to others who should never be set free.”
The board agreed, denied parole and won’t see him again for five years.
McKee told Baughman there is no sympathy for him: “I only regret that the laws of Montana limit our ability to put the victims and society through the stresses of another hearing in five or six years. I have absolutely zero confidence that you would not necessarily do the same thing again.”
The board’s treatment of Scott Hainlin, an inmate at the Shelby prison, was nearly as harsh.
Hainlin, imprisoned since he was 16 for severely beating a child in Anaconda in 2004, told the board he had completed all his programming, earned his high school equivalency and would like to go to an inmate-worker program at a prerelease center. The board denied him, and said he can’t return for five years.
“So, you’re pretty much telling me that everything I’ve done (in prison) is for nothing,” Hainlin said. “I’ve never once had any kind of a serious write-up. … After five years, when my mom dies, I’ll have no one else to get out to.”
“So you’re threatening the parole board,” McKee replied.
“I’m not threatening the parole board,” Hainlin said.
“You can make the decision … to come back in five years and say those things you said earlier,” McKee said. “Or, you can come back in with the attitude that I have a chip on my shoulder.”
“The next time I come back, I will not have family support. I’m going to get out with nothing. That’s all I’m saying.”