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DEER LODGE – On a chilly morning at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, the first person before the state Board of Pardons and Parole is 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 pre-release 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 pre-release center rules. When pre-release 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After a brief discussion, the three-member board rescinded his parole, but then granted it again – provided he returns to a pre-release center, follows its rules and completes the community program.

“These are just simple rules,” said board member Pete 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 stood to return to his cell, he thanked the board members for the second chance.

Leeson was 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 the inmates were denied parole. Another half-dozen had their paroles rescinded. And 18 were granted parole, although most must go through a program – pre-release, 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.”

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Steglich quietly cried as he said 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 endorsed 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 emotion-charged case: Joe Baughman, who’s 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 the 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, tells the board he has completed all his programming, earned his high school degree and would like to go to an inmate-worker program at a pre-release 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 says. “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,” Hainlin said.

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Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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