Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The Elusiveness of an Official ID After Prison

A bureaucratic maze within the federal government leaves scores of former inmates without the key to a fresh start.

A flat piece of plastic can mean so much to a former inmate. It can mean stable housing, a better job, access to social services, educational opportunities, and more. But this singular piece of plastic proves elusive—impossible, really—for scores of citizens across the United States. An official government-issued identification card, equal in value to and as universally accepted as a driver’s license or passport, can be the key to a post-incarceration life filled with possibilities instead of roadblocks. 

About 600,000 people return home from federal and state prisons each year. The federal government alone releases some 41,000 inmates annually. But it and many states do not provide returning citizens with this invaluable instrument.

For its part, the federal government does acknowledge the need for an official ID. Earlier this year, Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked all state governors to provide state-issued IDs for newly released federal inmates. This is a significant but only symbolic step: The Department of Justice cannot legally compel states to do anything in this regard. It can only ask politely and say please. “I am asking each state to work with us to allow citizens returning from federal prisons to exchange their federal BOP [Bureau of Prisons] inmate ID card—and their authenticated release documentation—for a state-issued ID,” she said at a reentry event in Philadelphia in April. “This basic step would have a powerful impact. As a practical matter, it would standardize the current patchwork of state policies around providing returning citizens with identification, and it would eliminate one of the most common—and most harmful—barriers to reentry across the United States.”

But, before asking states to do their part, why wouldn’t the Federal Bureau of Prisons take the task on themselves? They are talking about federal inmates, after all. So I made a handful of phone calls to multiple federal agencies and exchanged some emails with Justin Long, a spokesperson at the bureau. I gained a better understanding of the intricacies involved, but mostly, I still have a lot of questions.

First, Long said that “preliminary discussions have occurred or contacts received” from Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, and Virginia. That doesn’t explain why the feds don’t take the project on themselves, but 17 states and DC does seem promising. “Initial conversations have involved setting up appropriate points of contact and sending relevant BOP policies or procedures to interested states to become familiarized with our internal identification process,” Long wrote. “In general discussions, the states contacted have expressed a sincere willingness to find a solution to this issue.” But he was clear that the level of commitment may vary among states because some changes could require legislative amendments. On their end, the BOP set up the National Reentry Affairs Branch to coordinate with the DOJ and state representatives, like directors of departments of motor vehicles or secretaries of state.

“Most people don’t focus on it, but it’s a huge barrier for the formerly incarcerated, a huge barrier for caring for their families and themselves,” said Paul Samuels, president of Legal Action Center, an advocacy organization in New York City whose clients include former inmates. “It also leads to high rates of recidivism. People return to criminal activity when they run out of legitimate ways to normalize their situation,” he said.

Lynch agrees: In her letter to governors, the attorney general reminded them that securing employment and housing plays an important role in preventing individuals from returning to “patterns” that resulted in their incarceration. Okay, problem identified. So is the National Reentry Affairs Branch having an impact? Are states being heard? I wondered, would the BOP agree to make modifications to its prison identification, as Lynch said it would consider doing, if specific adjustments were requested by states? Long said that some states did suggest various “identity metrics,” which are under review since they have to first comply with the Real ID Act, created to establish national guidelines for official IDs. Additionally, states were concerned about their ability to “protect their citizens from identity theft,” Long said. So now the Federal Bureau of Prisons is assessing all of these, suggestions, requests, and concerns.

But what if the states weren’t asked for input? Or at least, not on the question of federal-inmate IDs. Presumably, the Federal Bureau of Prisons verified the identity of every prisoner in its care prior to trying, sentencing, and incarcerating them. It even has a software application to create inmate ID cards. These cards are used during custody to identify inmates to staff, as well as to facilitate prison purchases and services. Upon being released to halfway houses, group homes, or residential reentry centers, inmates keep the cards to use as picture IDs. To prepare for someone’s release, BOP staff often also work with inmates to obtain a birth certificate so they can get a state-issued ID instead, where that’s an option. Which makes sense: The stigma associated with having a criminal record makes it difficult to imagine that providing prison-issued IDs would have broad appeal—especially among former inmates.

“Who will accept that in the community? Employers and other agencies do not recognize those IDs as legitimate,” said Samuels. He explained that DMV rules in New York state allow the state-prison ID to actually help people get a driver’s license or state-issued nondriver ID, an ID that does not include driving privileges but which is on par with a license in terms of validity. Samuels, however, warned that for many returning citizens, the financial cost can be an additional barrier. “That’s why we suggest a waiver for people who are indigent. When people come out of jail they have very little money to get on their feet, so it’s important for the fees to be waved to help them get started,” he said.