My name is Melissa Smylie. I am a mother, a former AmeriCorps member, and student. I also have three felony convictions and a hefty handful of probation violations. I have reclaimed my life, but re-entry into life after being convicted and incarcerated was hard. The barriers the probation system created made recovery nearly impossible. I was successful because I found ways to get active, volunteer, and be of service to others. I filled my days with this, so that I wouldn’t be thinking about giving up.
When a person is on probation, they are not allowed to drink. You aren’t allowed to go into any drinking establishments, even if your conviction had nothing to do with alcohol. In 2008, while on probation, I was caught drinking and received a probation violation. I plead guilty to the violation and was resentenced in the Department of Corrections (DOC).
Attached to this sentence was a requirement of treatment at the Elkhorn Treatment Center and nine months detention at a pre-release center, but at the time of my sentencing, no bed was available in the Elkhorn facility. I was sent to a women’s community-based correctional facility, where I spent five months waiting for a bed at Elkhorn. That’s five months of my life I could’ve spent at home with family but couldn’t, because there weren’t enough treatment beds available.
It was during my time at Elkhorn that I realized I didn’t have a drinking problem, I had a thinking problem – I had a constant feeling of hopelessness, of being unable to escape the hold of my convictions and violations. Eventually, I successfully completed my treatment at Elkhorn and was released into the Great Falls Pre-Release Center. Shortly after arriving at pre-release I found out that a Montana law allowed for the remainder of my sentence to be suspended. I walked out of the pre-release center and back into probation supervision seven months early, not because the authorities told me I could, but because I did my own research. No wonder detention facilities are overflowing.
In Great Falls, I had a job set up before I walked out of the pre-release center. But then, upon release, I was told I had to report to the Shelby probation office within 24 hours. I drove to Shelby from Great Falls in order to meet this requirement – 85 miles one way. For some reason, my PO (probation officer) in Shelby was quite livid that I had somehow found a way to avoid serving the full sentence in the pre-release and was once again on her caseload. She immediately saw me as a burden when I thought I was being resourceful.
During that initial visit, I was informed that I would not receive a travel permit to commute to my job in Great Falls. My probation officer informed me that she would bring charges against me if she caught me driving at all, even though I had a valid driver’s license. She communicated that she felt my license should have been revoked over the DUI that was formally dismissed the year before. This meant I had to quit my job in Great Falls and move to Shelby. In one meeting, she took away my transportation and my job. She then told me I had to find another job immediately or she would hit me with a violation.
Being on probation meant I had to follow a lot of rules. It felt like the probation officer was in charge of my life, but never acted as an advocate. I felt like I was the only advocate I had, to make sure that I could get past my term of probation and accomplish the goals I had. For the next few weeks, I applied for jobs and only got calls back from the places that were not in contact with my probation officer. After following up with a couple of places, I learned that my probation officer was also calling these locations and providing employers with bad information about me. I was not receiving any job offers because of that. I felt like she actually wanted me to fail and go back to jail, no matter how hard I was trying to keep it together.
I finally got offered a job doing the bookkeeping for Lucky Lil’s. Per rules of probation, I was not allowed to gamble or be in a casino. I explained to my PO that the office was separate from the casino. The PO refused to allow me to work there. I felt that I was out of options since employment in Shelby is limited.
Shortly after realizing that I had run out of options for employment, a probation officer in Shelby had me picked up out of Toole County on a “no bond” hold, hoping to send me back to the women’s prison. The no-bond hold is a tool used by the DOC to hold probationers in custody without bond while they build a case against you for probation violations. You have no access to a lawyer, witnesses, or family members. Then, 72 hours later the PO and a hearings officer will tell you what you’re guilty of and then you go to prison. The “no bond” hold ordered by my PO was actually improper and I was eventually released. I went before a judge once my PO officially recommended I be revoked from probation.
Once in front of the judge, I learned why I was picked up and being accused of violating my probation. The charges in the violation from the probation officer read: “Melissa continues to run amok.” Confused and frustrated, I asked for her to be more specific because I was not pleading guilty to that. The violation also charged “Melissa continues to be a menace to society,” and again, I asked her to be more specific. Finally, the last charge was: “Melissa fails to work an honest program.” And I refused to plead guilty to that either. Although I received tremendous pressure from my own public defender to plead, I continued to refuse. I knew that I had to be advocate for myself – I was not going to plead to things that had no basis in fact.
While waiting for my bond to be posted, I was visited by the regional probation officer. He informed me that I would need to make arrangements for moving to and living in Great Falls upon my release. He thought I would not get a fair chance if I were to return to Shelby. So, upon release, I did as I was told, left my family in Shelby, and came back to Great Falls. My daughter was still in Shelby, with my mom. I asked for a travel permit from my new PO in Great Falls to go up and get her. Instead I was told to contact Child Protective Services (CPS) in Shelby.
I thought the move back to Great Falls would be beneficial. There are more employment options here. I thought I would be free from the frustrations of my probation officer. Instead, I began to battle to get my daughter back. My PO in Shelby was working with Shelby CPS to convince me I would be going to prison soon for the baseless probation violations I had been accused of. They said I should leave my kiddo with my mom. If not, the CPS officer would get an emergency custody order from the state. I made it clear to CPS that I would not be pleading guilty to the violations and that he had no grounds for investigating my custody of my own child. Once the CPS officer was convinced I would not give up custody of my child, he agreed that there were no legal grounds for them to keep us apart any longer and he would call my PO and let them know I could parent again. I couldn’t believe that instead of helping me figure out a way to maintain a connection with my child, my PO made it sound like I should be willing to leave her.
Our society sets up so many barriers for individuals affected by the criminal justice system. For the next six months of my life, I wasn’t allowed to get food assistance because of this. I was told that I couldn't sign a lease agreement until the “running amok” charges were settled. And I was told I would not be able to go to college because of this legal uncertainty. Hungry, homeless, and underprivileged is where I landed while on probation.
Since 2010, I have successfully completed five years of college to earn a bachelor’s degree in Paralegal Studies from the University of Great Falls. I continue to share my story, hoping to raise awareness about the pressure to plead and how the probation system continues to drive prison rates up every year. I will continue to be part of conversations that help to address issues like probation and parole, pressure to plead, and re-entry, as I have lived it and survived it, against all the odds.