The New Hampshire parole board plays a key role in the state’s criminal justice system. Its nine members decide which inmates get out on parole, and which parolees return to prison. Although parole hearings are open to the public, they take place with little oversight or public scrutiny. And, unlike most legal proceedings, they can be surprisingly unrefined affairs.
We recommend listening to this story. It contains language some may find objectionable.
The hearings take place inside what used to be the warden’s residence at the State Prison for Men in Concord.
“It is probably the cleanest building in the state. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where they empty the waste baskets twice a day,” Donna Sytek, the board’s chair, told me at her kitchen table last month. “Because they have all this free labor.”
Sytek was referring to inmates.
The room itself looks like a courtroom: the inmate faces the board members, who sit behind a wooden bench. Often, new lawyers stand up to address the board. They’re told to sit down. This is not a courtroom.
Sytek is one of nine members who take turns sitting in groups of three, for five hours a day, twice a week. Three of the members are lawyers. These often serve on Tuesdays, when the parole board decides which parolees have violated enough parole conditions to be sent back to prison. Parolees have a right to an attorney at those hearings, which often are more formal. On Thursdays, the board decides which inmates should be granted parole. It’s these hearings that tend to be the most profane and confrontational.
“I know I shouldn’t be chewing your ass like this but you know damn well what I’m talkin' about,” board member Jeff Brown said to an inmate during a hearing in February.
“The thing about a good car salesman is they know how to blow smoke up your ass while smiling to your face and telling you absolutely lies,” Leslie Mendenhall, also a board member, told another inmate the month before.
NHPR reviewed 20 hours of parole hearings from the last year: hearings during which public officials make decisions about people’s liberty and community safety. Where we expected civility, we found foul language and confrontation.
“There is a perception that the parole board is like the Wild West,” said attorney David Hendricks, “the rules are loosely applied.”
In a court, Hendricks said, lawyers take things for granted that go by the wayside in parole hearings. For example, hearsay and unsworn testimony are accepted by the parole board, but would be disregarded in a courtroom. Decorum, he said, can also go out the window.
Hendricks spent hundreds of hours in parole revocation hearings during his decade as a public defense attorney.
“I have seen habitual cynicism toward parolees, disrespect, unprofessionalism, and informality,” he said. “Most of it occurs in between hearings, when you are waiting for other inmates to be brought forward.”
While they may review cases beforehand, the parole board has only about 15 minutes to speak with people convicted of charges including sex offenses, drug crimes, and domestic violence before deciding if they can live safely outside prison walls. Members receive no training and appointment requires no prerequisite experience. Most of the time, inmates who meet minimum requirements are granted parole.
A few months back, I sat through a day of parole hearings including that of Adam Smart. His mother sat next me at the back of the room. Both of us were asked to explain our presence to the board.
During the hearing, Smart told the board he struggles with addiction. He said he didn’t get as much drug treatment as he would have liked behind bars, and that he’s on a waiting list for treatment in the community. At some point as he spoke, board member Leslie Mendenhall decided Smart was making excuses. She raised her voice.
“I think you’re full of shit, and I think you’re trying to sell a nice boat down the river,” she said. “You’re full of it. You’re full of yourself. Every single time. And what are you taking for medications?”
“Nothing,” he replied.
“Because they want to put me on sleep meds for anxiety,” said Smart.
“Right, because do you know one of the best things you can do for bipolar is to make sure that you get a solid amount of sleep because that helps stable your mood?” Mendenhall asked.
“I don’t know if I have bipolar,” Smart said. “All I know is I have anxiety.”
“You’re sure presenting like a bipolar,” she replied.
Phil Utter is a private defense attorney who I met at a previous parole hearing. “It strikes me as completely inappropriate,” he said, after hearing a recording of the exchange. “It is certainly not the parole board’s role to advise them on their mental health issues. And swearing at an inmate? How can that possibly be helpful. This is a person who’s going to be reintegrating into society at some point. If you start belittling them... It’s just wrong. It’s just wrong.”
David Hendricks, the attorney who called the board the wild west, went into more detail.
“Their job is to demonstrate conduct that takes seriously laws, and takes seriously what their job is,” he said.
Hendricks said he believes when people are denigrated by public officials, they lose faith in the entire system and become less likely to abide by laws.
Mendenhall chose not to be interviewed for the story. The board's chair, Donna Sytek says things used to be even more informal.
“That’s one of the reasons I asked to be appointed to the parole board,” she said. “Because I didn’t think the hearings were accorded the dignity that the parties and the process deserve.”
Sytek is a former New Hampshire House Speaker who has published a guide to political etiquette. She calls Mendenhall’s exchange “inappropriate.” Still, she said, confrontation can be constructive for some inmates.
Another board member, Brian Cashman defended tough talk at parole hearings.
“If you’re gonna get their attention, you have to get their attention,” he said. Cashman explained that feeling deceived can make one “emotional,” adding “I try not to, but sometimes it just comes out.”
Attorney David Hendricks said he knows how frustrating the parole board’s job is, and how fraught the justice system can be. But being polite?
“That is something that is not very difficult to achieve, and is sort of a bare minimum that we should just frankly, expect.”
Correction: a previous version of the story stated that three of the Parole Board members must be lawyers. There is no such requirement.