Hailey Christiansen believed in second chances.
The 29-year-old raised two pitbulls, Comrad and Thor, gentle giants her young son Hazen rode like horses.
She had once considered becoming a probation officer.
You’re too soft-hearted for a job like that, her family told her.
“That’s just who Hailey was,” her father, Mike Christiansen said. “She never saw the bad in anybody. She just saw the good.”
When she met DeShawn Gleaton Jr., a man fresh out of prison, she saw the good in him, too.
In 2017, Gleaton had forced his way into an ex-girlfriend’s home, trapped her in a room and strangled her, leaving bruises on the sides of her neck, cheeks and shoulders.
The judge who sentenced him said he needed treatment which could “be provided most effectively” behind bars. Prison clinicians flagged him as high risk for domestic violence – a person more likely to be lethally violent.
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But Gleaton didn’t receive programming in prison, corrections officials confirmed this week. He skipped court-ordered treatment following his release.
Despite the court’s insistence, he didn’t receive a single second of rehabilitative programming of any kind – in part because a domestic violence program hasn’t been offered inside Nebraska prisons since 2015.
Around the time Gleaton got out of prison, the prison system’s inspector general separately began to question how effectively inmates were being rehabilitated for life on the outside. He raised concerns about the quality of some programs and the removal of others. In reports, he noted the more than 1,000 inmates awaiting overbooked in-prison programs for things like anger management and substance abuse – long lines that effectively bar prisoners like Gleaton on shorter prison stays from receiving these programs.
Soon after getting out, Gleaton started dating Hailey Christiansen, the 29-year-old who believed in second chances. She quickly found herself in a violent relationship.
“I always expected that one day, I’d get a call about Hailey being in the hospital,” her older sister, Hollie Christiansen said.
The call came on July 24, 2020.
After meeting him, Hailey learned that Gleaton had a history.
Her sister, Heidi Christiansen, used to work at the jail and had seen him booked for other arrests.
“Stay away from him,” she told Hailey.
Hailey kept seeing Gleaton. But when she did try to end things, he wouldn’t leave her alone, her family said.
He repeatedly kicked down her door. He stole her car, her phone, even her dog Comrad, letting him out on the side of the road in Norfolk.
Six months after Gleaton was released from jail for strangling a woman, he broke into Hailey’s home and attacked her, leaving bruises and scratches around her neck. He was arrested and released on bond days later – an oft-violent abuser now enraged that Hailey had reported him.
Eighteen days after he assaulted Hailey – 10 days after being bonded out of jail – he returned to her home. He fired a single shot. The bullet punctured Hailey’s right lung and heart.
“Tell my son I love him, tell my family I love them,” Hailey repeated to paramedics as they sped toward Norfolk’s Faith Regional Hospital, according to court records.
She died hours later.
Hailey’s death has become a flashpoint in a years-long debate about what, if anything, Nebraska can do to prevent domestic abusers from continuing to abuse.
For years, Doug Koebernick, inspector general of Nebraska’s prisons, has urged the department to restart a domestic violence program for hundreds of prisoners who, like Gleaton, are flagged as high risk.
Nebraska prison officials have offered shifting rationale for why it doesn’t exist. They have said that domestic violence programming in prison isn’t effective, and works better when offered to a person out on parole or post-release supervision. During a recent interview, they also blamed state standards that dictate what’s required from domestic violence programs – standards they say make it impossible to offer them in prison.
“The risk is there at every level. The judge’s discretion, the prosecutor’s discretion,” said Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. “Talking about the criminal justice system, that’s everything we do, is risk management. Trying to make the best decisions that will lead to the best outcomes.”
There is no way of knowing if any systemic change would have made a difference – whether in-prison rehabilitation would have put Gleaton on the path to change, or if a higher bond would have prevented him from leaving jail and shooting Hailey in the early morning hours.
This much is clear: Hailey was murdered by a man that criminal records, court records and the prison system’s own evaluation showed posed a lethal risk. She became one of 13 Nebraska women who died at the hands of a partner in 2020. The 29-year-old left behind her son, parents, two brothers and two sisters.
“If you are a person who believes that prisons should work to rehabilitate people…it is the prison’s job to find ways to help that person not reoffend,” said David Pitts, a senior research fellow at the Urban Institute.
Hailey’s visitation at the Our Savior Lutheran Church in late July 2020 drew a crowd of 900 – many of them faces unfamiliar to the Christiansen family. They were people who briefly crossed paths with her, remembering the girl with the big smile who worked full-time at Window World and checked IDs at the O Lounge in Norfolk on weekends.
“I was at the end of my rope when Hailey talked to me,” one man told her father, Mike.
The stranger had driven two and a half hours from Storm Lake, Iowa, to pay his respects.
Gleaton, too, had a reputation.
Before meeting Hailey, Gleaton had amassed a string of domestic assault charges dating back to 2013. Two misdemeanors in Iowa, spending just a few days in jail for each. Another assault charge in Iowa. And then, the strangulation and criminal trespass convictions that landed him in Nebraska prison with a sentence of two years and 90 days.
At intake, when prisoners have their risks and needs assessed, Gleaton was flagged as high risk for domestic violence, prison officials confirmed. He would need a batterers intervention program and an intensive outpatient program for drug use. He was told he would need to complete the programs while on post-release supervision, not in prison, he told the Flatwater Free Press in a phone call from the Madison County Jail.
He would have done any program in prison just to pass the time, he said.
But Gleaton likely would have been waiting in a long line. Roughly 2,000 inmates have been waiting for clinical programming at any given time since 2019 – nearly one out of every three of the state’s 5,500 prisoners. These programs include anger management, violence reduction, sex offender treatment and two drug treatment programs. The bulk of the prisoners waiting for a program are awaiting substance abuse treatment, according to department data.
Getting prisoners into programming can help on two fronts. Improving behavior while a person is incarcerated makes for a better work environment for guards, and a better living environment for prisoners, Koebernick said.
The ultimate goal: Rehabilitate prisoners to make the public safer.
“You want to get that done before they get paroled or get released,” Koebernick said. “So that they have a better chance of being successful when they get out there, and that they’re less of a threat to themselves or others.”
Before 2015, the department had a domestic violence program in its substance abuse unit, said Dawn-Renee Smith, corrections’ deputy director for programs. That year, the department started expanding domestic violence programs to other prison locations, with clinical staff running sessions.
It then decided to shift its focus and clinicians’ time to its violence reduction program. That ended the domestic violence program, she said.
In 2019, Koebernick began urging the department to reinstate it for “community safety.”
That year, the number of prisoners like Gleaton marked high risk for domestic violence totaled about 600. By 2020, it ballooned to 800. As of June, 707 prisoners had domestic violence on their file, according to the department.
“In other words, for the person assessed, there is a greater likelihood the level of violence could be lethal,” department spokesperson Laura Strimple said in an email.
To the Christiansen family, any type of rehabilitation would have been better than nothing. Why flag someone as high risk if they get out and are still high risk?
“If you’re a correctional facility, you should be trying to correct,” her brother Curt Christiansen said.
When Gleaton left prison in April 2018 and started post-release supervision, he was one of hundreds of domestic violence offenders annually court-ordered to attend batterers intervention outside prison walls.
There are some good reasons to provide this program on the outside, Frakes said. The social interactions of the real world give participants a chance to practice what they learn in sessions.
But Gleaton never went.
His non-attendance got him sent back to jail for violating the conditions of his post-release supervision. He was then released from custody – with no parole or probation strings attached – in December 2019.
“The folks that are court-ordered and they don’t show up at all, or they show up for a couple of sessions and then they disappear – those are the folks that we would most like to deliver the treatment to. And we lose them,” said Tara Richards, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
In Nebraska, prison programs are, by law, voluntary. Still, offering a domestic violence program in prison means that even if a person drops out, they’re still findable.
“You have a captive audience, literally,” Richards said.
Underlying this debate is the sobering reality that, at least historically, domestic violence programs – no matter where they are delivered – rarely work.
Domestic violence offenders are already more likely to reoffend than other criminals, research has shown.
A 2004 study found that on average, men who have been arrested and ordered to complete a domestic violence program are just 5% less likely to be violent toward a female partner than men who weren’t.
But even preventing one person from abusing again makes a difference, said Deb Minardi, state probation administrator. In Nebraska, the probation office oversees those on post-release supervision.
She sees a benefit to starting intervention programs in prison and then continuing them outside of the prison walls.
“I think the longer people are engaged in programming, the better off they are,” Minardi said. “So yes, if they start in prisons and we can continue that in the community, that’s certainly a good approach.”
At community correctional centers in Lincoln and Omaha, prisoners can enroll in domestic violence programs run outside the prison, both in-person and virtually since 2020. But Gleaton spent only three months at community corrections before he racked up 18 misconduct reports and was shipped back to a higher security prison, Frakes said.
“He certainly had a good opportunity to get a job, go through that transitional, safer scenario of community corrections,” Frakes said. “Clearly, he was not responsive, not ready.”
In the past year, both prison officials and the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence have revisited the possibility of restarting a domestic violence program in Nebraska prisons. They are keeping tabs on new and promising programming being tested in other states, said Christon MacTaggart, the coalition’s executive director.
Being able to access “behavior-changing support” in prison is important, MacTaggart said. But whether it would have helped Gleaton is questionable, prison officials said.
“I don’t know that he would have been any more willing to do that with us, or any more responsive to the programming,” said Smith, director of programming in Nebraska prisons. “I don’t know if anything would have gotten through. We’ll never know.”
A week after Hailey’s funeral, the Christiansen family gathered to do one of the things Hailey loved most: They went camping.
Hailey’s death still didn’t feel real. What comes next? they thought, sitting around the campfire.
“We cannot lose her without having something positive come out of this,” her mother, Janet Christiansen said. “It was just killing every one of us.”
Together, the family started brainstorming. What could they do? What changes could have prevented Hailey’s death? What could prevent this from happening to other families?
They eventually connected with the Koch family. In 2021, Brooke Koch was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend, who then turned the gun on himself. The family was working on legislation with Sen. Tom Brandt, who represents Fillmore, Saline, Thayer and Jefferson Counties in southeast Nebraska.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated where Sen. Brandt currently lives.
This year, the Kochs and Christiansens helped pass the creation of the Domestic Violence Death Review Team. Nebraska was one of only nine states that didn’t have one.
The hope: Looking at trends from past deaths in Nebraska will lead the team to make recommendations that become law – and prevent future deaths, MacTaggart said.
Other states are already devising potential solutions that show promise.
In Iowa’s prisons, a new model of domestic violence programming appears to have helped decrease violent crime among 15,000 recently released domestic violence offenders. In surveys, their partners reported a decrease in violent behaviors at home.
In California, prisoners started their own peer-led group to discuss their histories of domestic violence and how to change their mindsets. Three hundred men have completed the in-person program in eight years.
In other states, police conduct a specific risk assessment when a domestic violence offender is arrested. It can influence whether to set bail, and how high bail should be.
The newly formed Nebraska review team may start to look at these ideas, and others.
“I have high hopes that this team will give the Legislature some useful information that can be acted on, and not sit on a shelf and collect dust,” Brandt said.
On July 21, nearly two years after Hailey’s death, DeShawn Gleaton Jr. was sentenced to life in prison for her murder.
Today, the Christiansen home is filled with bits of Hailey. Framed photos fill the walls and shelves. They’re the only pictures of her they’ll ever have, Janet Christiansen said. Scattered throughout are toy elephants, Hailey’s favorite animal. Her brothers and sisters all bear matching elephant tattoos, the same one Hailey had on her left arm. Her childhood teddy bear sits in a corner. Her son Hazen, now 7, still plays with it when he comes to visit his grandparents.
Flowers and tinsel and twinkling lights surround Hailey’s tombstone, like a tiny garden in the middle of the cemetery. During a visit last December, Hazen sent balloons into the sky, tied with messages to his mother, a new tradition he requests every time they visit Hailey’s grave. He watched the balloons until he couldn’t see them anymore.
“Can I be by myself?” he asked his grandparents.
Then Hazen sat alone, cross-legged in the dry grass, his body cocooned in a blanket.
He talked to Hailey’s picture printed on her headstone. He told his mom how much he missed her.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.