I’m sent down to the Utah State Prison in Draper to photograph the parole hearing of Melinda Chasteen. Chasteen was, at 16, the youngest inmate at the prison when she arrived with a 5-years-to-life sentence for attempted aggravated murder. (While this post refers to other inmates, the photographs here are of Chasteen’s hearing only.)
A trip to the prison is unnerving even when you know that you’ll be getting out after a couple hours. They buzz me in and it’s an uneasy feeling as the gate closes behind me and I’m surrounded by fences and razor wire. I enter a building to check in.
Checking in at the same time as me are members of the Chasteen family. They’re immediately very curious who the guy with the cameras is. The officer at the door asks if I’m media. I affirm.
“What’s the media for?” asks a woman who I assume is Chasteen’s mother.
“The hearing is open to the public,” says the officer.
The woman bursts into tears.
A moment later she asks me, “What media are you?”
I tell her I’m with the Tribune, as her daughters try to get her to stop asking me questions. She says, “(The media is) always talking shit.”
Fortunately for all, the officer separates us, leaving them in a waiting room and taking me into the hearing room. There are two parole hearings before Chasteen’s, so I sit and listen to the proceedings.
The first inmate, an older man, bald, is brought in and told to sit down and face forward at all times. He’s dressed in white, with UDC INMATE written in block letters on his back. There’s one woman running the hearing. She asks him, “How are you doing?”
“Well,” says the inmate.
“You haven’t caught one of these colds that’s going around?”
“No,” the inmate says. “I’ve escaped them.” Great choice of words.
Seated in the gallery behind the inmate are some of his victims and their family members. Seated a few rows behind them are members of the inmate’s family and a friend or two.
The inmate has been diagnosed as a pedophile, and takes some time listing his history, his victims. Here are some of the things he said:
“I was hoeing beets in the beet field and four of the workers showed their genitalia.”
“I have a lot of disputes with my thinking errors.”
“I have a list of 84 thinking errors.”
He tells the parole board that he considers himself only a moderate risk if he were let loose, not a high-risk re-offender. And he disputes the pedophile diagnosis, insisting he wasn’t attracted to prepubescent boys, saying, “My youngest victim was twelve…and he was asleep.”
They gave the victims a chance to address the parole board. One man, the husband of a woman who was molested by her uncle when she was a child, fights to speak through tears and emotion. He barely gets through his final statement, which was, “I would rather take my own life than see one more person go through the horror my wife went through. I would do it in a minute.”
The next hearing involved another child molester. One of his victims wanted to address the parole board, and the molester was removed from the room for her comfort. She said she didn’t think he would ever change, and said, “He used to throw baby rabbits to his dog and watch his dog kill them.”
Earlier in the day, I had thought about how interesting it would be to sit in these hearings. I wondered if there would be members of the public sitting in the gallery just to watch. Like in a courthouse, people will show up just to listen. No one who wasn’t directly involved in the cases was here for the parole hearings. And after listening to what these two men had done, I realized why no one would come to watch this. There is no joy here. Bad things happened, and whether or not someone is granted parole, the stories will always remain tragic. Those words may sound stupid, reading it on your computer screen, but it’s what I’m brought to after sitting there hearing graphic details of children being sexually assaulted.
Chasteen’s hearing was next. I was too busy photographing to take notes. Of the three convicts, she seemed to recognize where she was and why. She said she understood she would have to serve the time her crime warranted.
After the hearing she was allowed a brief moment with her family. They told her they loved her and encouraged her to take advantage of the programs that would help her. Chasteen wiped the tears from her eyes and was led back into the prison, only 19 years old.