It was 1985 when Andre Linwood was convicted of burglary and theft while living in Great Falls. He was 17 years old and had recently moved from Illinois.
“Montana was a fresh and exciting place to be at first,” he said. “But it was a different time. I felt like I was one of only five black men in the state.”
Soon after moving, he felt like he was being racially profiled. He recalled being mistakenly picked up by the police as a suspect in an unsolved crime. They taunted him before letting him go.
“The guy at the jail who took my picture told me, 'Open your eyes and smile wide!' I'll never forget the way he said it,” Andre said. “It hurt.”
After being convicted of burglary and theft, Andre was serving a 10-years suspended sentence that put him on probation.
While on probation, Andre thought he was doing well: he got a job in telecommunications, traveling the country. He moved back to Chicago so he could be in a better place to do his work. His understanding was that he would report to his probation officer in Montana by phone, which is what he continued to do. In 1995 – 10 years later – Andre was pulled over by Chicago police. When they ran his I.D. he found out he had a warrant for his arrest for not properly reporting to his Montana probation officer. He was sent back to Montana in 1996 where he spent more than 11 months in Deer Lodge Prison. Nearly a year in prison for a technical violation for a conviction that was 10 years old.
When Andre got out of prison on parole, things started out okay. It was 1997 and he was about to turn 30. Though he’d had a few probation violations, he’d committed no other crimes since the one when he was 17. He had cultivated his skills as a journeyman lineman and he had aspirations to work hard and raise a family in Montana.
But, after parole, back on probation, the system kept setting him back. In one instance, a new probation officer visited his home and chastised him for having a big-screen TV.
“He told me, ‘I thought I told you not to get a big screen TV,’” Andre recalled. “And he violated me for it. My crime was burglary and theft when I was 17 years old. It had nothing to do with this TV.”
Andre doesn’t know what the officer violated him for specifically, though he believes it was a judgment made because of his previous burglary crime. He didn’t ask, because he didn’t want to get into more trouble.
In 2001, still on probation from the crime he committed in 1985, Andre was regularly checking in with his probation officer. He was living in Billings and traveling to Butte four days a week for work, making $1,500 a week, which was helping him get his life back together. But out of the blue, he said, he got a notice from probation and parole saying that he was not allowed to leave Yellowstone County anymore. So, he was forced to quit his job and find another one closer to where he was living. As a result, he ended up working in restaurant kitchens, making less money, and no longer sharpening his trade skills.
“It is mind blowing, I had not been convicted of a crime since 1985,” he reiterated. “I kept thinking, ‘How is it 2001 and I’m still on probation?’”
Andre said that the harms probation have caused to his life have been disproportionate to his violations. In addition to the seemingly random violations (like having a big screen TV), other impacts were more harmful: for instance, in 1999, his 2-year-old daughter was placed in foster care after a probation trainee had Andre arrested for refusing to empty his pockets. Andre had been leaving the courthouse after a tense conversation with his girlfriend when the trainee approached him and said they needed to “diffuse the situation.” Andre was taken to Yellowstone County Jail for a few days and then released with no charges. In another instance, he missed his father-in-law’s funeral because he didn’t have permission to travel.
Andre recently obtained a record of his criminal history and was surprised to find that every unexplained revocation he got on probation had his original crime—the burglary when he was 17—listed as the violation.
“I believe this to be intentional by agents of the Billings probation and parole office,” he said, “trying to ensure that employment opportunities for me would be limited.”
Andre has had a hard time pinpointing exact evidence for why he’s targeted, but he suspects it’s in part because he’s Black. He said he had a probation officer shove him up against a wall. “The system is broken to begin with,” he said. “But I think it’s often worse for those of us with black and brown skin,” he said. “I’ve been treated as a third-class citizen.”
Over the years, Andre has spent a lot of his time researching his rights in the legal and probation system. For him, it’s the only way to understand how to get his life back, because he’s had so little help from the system. Now, finally off probation, he still deals with the toll it took.
“It took years off my life,” he said. “I’m a skilled tradesman--fiber optics, power, phone, cable. And I’m a retired executive chef. For whatever reason these people could not get over that my skin was black, and I was smart, and I could make things happen. To this day I still run into these people. I still hold a lot of animosity and I feel like it harmed me mentally. I've never been able to get a fair deal.”