BY THE TIME Joseph completed his sentence at the Boston Pre-Release Center in May, his Massachusetts ID had expired. He could not start his new job as a meat clerk in a grocery store without an updated ID. It was the jumpstart he needed, but the delay in getting a new ID almost cost him his job.
“I was fortunate enough that they held that job for me, but it did set me back two weeks,” he said. Luckily for Joseph, he had saved enough money from his job in prison to provide for himself as he awaited his new documents, so he could afford both his birth certificate and a new ID. The cost of a Mass. ID ($25) and birth certificate (starting at $20) can pose a barrier to returning citizens following incarceration. For those individuals just returning home with no source of stable income, every dollar counts.
Without an ID, housing, employment, and access to public benefits are nearly impossible to obtain. The challenge to accessing any of those resources is particularly difficult for those with a criminal record. IDs are also necessary to set up a bank account, enroll in school, and vote. Removing the time lag between leaving a correctional facility and restarting one’s life with the necessary documents in hand is critical to a successful transition. During a global pandemic, the urgency to remove bureaucratic hurdles to re-entry is more important.
In order to renew his ID, Joseph had to visit the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Due to the pandemic, fewer RMV service centers are open, and appointments must be scheduled online. Any online system can be difficult to navigate, but it can be particularly challenging for those with little experience with technology. The logistical difficulties of contacting the RMV, setting up an appointment and obtaining an ID could be solved by ensuring that returning citizens have an ID in hand upon their release.
The Massachusetts Department of Correction says it helps inmates obtain identification 12 months before release. But according to a statement from the DOC, out of the 1,880 individuals who received re-entry planning services in 2019, only 300 left a DOC facility with a state ID or driver’s license.
A number of barriers can affect how easy it is to obtain an ID, such as the length of time a person has been in prison and whether a person had a Mass ID before being incarcerated. In order to get an ID, people must have other documents proving their identity, creating a layered cycle of paperwork that returning citizens have difficulty navigating. Joseph had to prove his residency in order to obtain an ID, and his only proof was a letter for unemployment, which did not suffice.
“At first they wouldn’t accept it,” he said. “But I told them I just came out of incarceration and I really needed this ID. They accepted that. I waited almost two weeks after receiving my temporary ID to get my full ID.”
In 2017, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Acton resident Dorothy Werst headed a prisoner ID program to remove some of the challenges Joseph faced. At that time, the state approved a partnership between the Secretary of State’s office and the Department of Correction to pilot a program giving returning citizens a packet of items, including a Mass ID, Social Security card, and resume.
“To their credit, DOC, I felt, was very much on board,” Eldridge said. “And I think now if you talk to senior leaders, they are very supportive. But I think there’s still not a push to make it as universal as it should be. I’ve talked to some DOC individuals that have expressed their frustration that the RMV has not been as supportive or [willing] to provide more resources or support to make sure that every prisoner released has an ID.”
Other states have formed similar partnerships between their departments of corrections and the motor vehicles. The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) developed a partnership with the secretary of state to provide returning citizens with a state-issued ID upon their parole that is slated to launch this fall. California also has a program to provide IDs to individuals before they come home — but because of eligibility restrictions and other issues, the Marshall Project reported that fewer than 30 percent of people released from prison came home with an ID between July and December 2019.
In addition to making sure that returning citizens have an essential document to help meet their basic needs, providing IDs upon release puts former inmates on a path to re-engage in voting. Massachusetts launched its automatic voting registration process this January, which means issuing IDs for those released who are eligible to vote can expedite their ability to participate in elections.
The Massachusetts Department of Correction and other state agencies need to do a better job of working together so that IDs are provided to every individual who’s been released from prison. The need for housing, food, a job, and basic necessities doesn’t wait, and neither should those who need an ID.
Joseph is still working at the grocery store and now has a new job offer to work at a warehouse. “I have more opportunities as I get further down the road,” he said. “Things get better daily.”
Alexis Farmer is a master’s in public policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. Joseph, who asked that his full name not be used, is a client of the City of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens (ORC), which supports formerly incarcerated citizens in their transition to the community. Farmer met him while serving as a Rappaport Fellow with the ORC.