The day after Dan’s parole hearing I found him leaning against the rail on the second tier looking glum. 

“What happened?” I asked. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “I walked into the hearing and before I could say anything they told me I couldn’t live with my sister in Rockingham County like I had planned. They said they didn’t want me living with family members. I asked, "Why?" They didn’t think family members would be reliable chaperones. They would lie for me. 

“What the heck?” I said.  “Where’d that come from?” 

“It gets worse.” Dan said. “They said I couldn’t parole directly to the street,  that I would have to go out through minimum security and the Halfway House. That’ll take me six more months. And they weren’t satisfied with the polygraph I took in the sex offender program.  I have to take a full disclosure polygraph at the Halfway House. I asked them why. They wouldn’t give me an answer.” 

“Then what?”

“They’ll see me again after I take the polygraph. So, when I got back to the unit, I asked to see my therapist. She said the polygraph I took was good enough. And the prison won’t pay for another.”

This was crazy. Dan was a smart, likeable guy.  Before his conviction for the biggest mistake of his life he had never been in legal trouble.  He took a plea bargain, five to ten years in prison with two years off for doing the sex offender program. He passed it with glowing recommendations from his therapist and the unit counselor. Both backed him for parole. Dan planned to live with his sister.  He’d already found a job on the outside. I assumed he would breeze through parole. 

“Is your victim’s family from Rockingham County?” I asked. The board often bars parolees from living in the same county as the victim. 

“They live in Belknap County.” he said.  “No one from that family showed up at the hearing.” 

That evening Dan called his parents. His dad had seen one of his sisters leave the room before the hearing started. She looked smug.

“What’s she got against you?” I asked. 

 “That’s just it,” Dan said. “She’s married to a former prison guard from Massachusetts. They don’t think I got enough time because they don’t think I’m truly repentant, whatever that means. In fact, my sister wrote a letter to my step-mom last Christmas saying she’d do anything to make sure I stayed in prison, including talking to the parole board. Oh, and, my sister lives in Rockingham County.” 

“Wow. So, what do you think she told them?” 

“No idea.” 

“And you’ll never know,” I thought. I was familiar with the process. The first time I saw the parole board I prepared a folder documenting the accomplishments of three and a half years of prison: classes completed, good work reports, certificates earned. I pressed my best pair of prison greens by folding them under my mattress three days beforehand.  I got a haircut and trimmed my mustache. I prepared a statement saying how sorry I was and promising never to re-offend.

On the day of my hearing, folder in hand, I climbed the metal stairs to the second floor of the old prison building.  I waited on a bench in the hall until a guard called me, patted me down, thumbed through my folder and opened the steel door. The venue looks like a tiny courtroom. The parole board sits at a long table in front. The audience gets a dozen chairs. The prisoner sits behind a rail.

I nodded to my wife, sister, and brother-in-law. Several other friends had come. I glanced quickly at a row of stern faces in the back. I had last seen them at the Strafford County Courthouse over three years ago. I was sorry to see them here. It meant they were still hurting. At least they will get to hear my statement of regret, I thought.

The chairman began addressing the back row. “We have listened to your concerns and read your letters, but we have decided we’re going to parole Mr. Horner into his next sentence. We’ll get another chance to see him in three and a half years.” 

That was it. No one wanted to see my certificates or hear my statement. No one asked me or my family anything.

“What concerns is he talking about?” I thought. “What letters?” On the phone that afternoon I asked my wife if there was any discussion before I entered the hearing. “No.” she told me, “but we had to wait outside.  We were the last to be let into the room.” 

I asked for a recording of the hearing. Several weeks later at mail call I got a manila envelope with a cassette tape inside. I borrowed my cellie’s tape player.  The tape started when I entered the room. I sent an Inmate Request Slip asking for copies of the letters the Board chairman had referred to. “Letters to the parole board are confidential” was the answer. 

So there it was.  My future was decided by three people willing to entertain statements about me made in private. I wasn’t allowed to know who said what.  If it weren’t for the board chairman’s passing reference, I wouldn’t have known anything was said. At least, in my case secret testimony didn't affect the outcome. But what about Dan’s?

When I saw Dan again, I told him New Hampshire law says parole is a privilege, not a right. “I usually tell guys mad at parole decisions to get over it. But your case is so blatantly arbitrary, I think you have a shot at winning a court challenge. Want to try?” 

"You know I do." 

“Can you get me a copy of that letter from your sister?’

“Sure can.”