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.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch testifies on Capitol Hill, urging the nation's governors to make it easier for convicted felons to obtain state-issued ID. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

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.

Some states are already way ahead of the federal government in this regard. Arizona, California, Illinois, Montana, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin allow released state inmates to exchange their corrections-department documentation for a state-issued ID or for prison documents to meet primary identification requirements for other state-issued forms of ID, according to Lynch’s letter. And a handful of other states—Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, and Wyoming—already have systems in place for providing a valid state-issued ID upon release. This got me thinking: If the states are sending released prisoners off with state IDs, could the Federal Bureau of Prisons send them off with federal IDs? Why doesn’t the federal government just issue passports to former inmates? It is one of the most powerful and widely recognized forms of identification on the planet.

I called the Department of State, which issues passports, to ask. After some mention of the difficulty in obtaining birth certificates, which are required for U.S.-born Americans (as opposed to naturalized ones or permanent residents) to be issued passports, they referred me back to DOJ and BOP. “Yes, this concept was considered during the early planning stages of this project,” Long said. “It was determined that current requirements to obtain a passport would inhibit wide-scale application for BOP’s population.” I took that to mean that birth certificates would complicate this, since most inmates don’t have easy access to them. In a colossal twist, however, most local governments ask for state-issued IDs to process a birth-certificate reissue request.

“In many cases, our inmate population may not have access to this document and would require an alternative identification document to meet this requirement,” Long explained. An alternative document like… a state ID! Of course if they had the state ID, they wouldn’t need the passport to show to potential employers or landlords. “The BOP is working with each state to identify the most relevant information we can provide to suitably substitute for the absence of a birth certificate,” he said. But other obstacles may stand in the way. “Some states have expressed concern with maintaining or gaining compliance with the Real ID Act from the Department of Homeland Security,” Long wrote.

At this point, reporting this story started feeling like a mean version of “hot potato.” But I was genuinely interested in getting to the bottom of why those with the power to provide official IDs could not figure out how to do it.

Then I learned that certain classes of crime prevent a person from having a passport application approved. So even if birth certificates grew on trees, being convicted as a drug trafficker who crossed an international border to commit a crime eliminates any chance of getting a passport. The same applies to people currently subject to federal arrest or a felony-related subpoena. People convicted of sex tourism will also be unable to travel internationally, either by having their previously issued passport taken away or by having their passport application denied.

What’s more, a judge has the discretion to decide whether or not a person who was formally declared legally incompetent during trial can get a passport. The same is also true for people who owe more than $5,000 in child support. If someone already had a passport but obtained it via fraudulent means or altered it in some way, it can be revoked at any time. If someone served time in a prison outside the United States and needed financial assistance from the U.S. government to be released from prison and be sent back to the United States, he may be prevented from obtaining a passport until he repays all those fees. These restrictions make sense—and many seem to be exceptions to the rule—but I still was left wondering why issuing a piece of plastic with some words and a picture on it presented the federal government with such a herculean feat despite all indications of basic ID-issuing competence and multiple layers of seemingly earnest commitment.

In April, during an event to mark the first-ever National Reentry Week, Lynch made an impassioned case on behalf of returning citizens. “It’s every mother who wants to come back equipped to help provide for her family,” she said. “It’s every father who wants to return as a role model for his kids. It is every friend and neighbor who went down the wrong path but is determined to give back to their neighborhood, to contribute to their community, and to be more than their worst mistake.

“I believe that we owe every individual that chance,” Lynch said.

I agree. A lot of states do, too. In fact, in some states, Lynch may just be preaching to the choir. State officials nationwide might think proper IDs are crucial and yet just can’t untangle the bureaucratic knots to make it happen. Which is why Lynch should take her own advice: The federal government, in the form of the BOP and DOJ, should lead by example. Not automatically issuing official identification to the inmates the federal government releases from custody is an unnecessary extension of their punishment. It is also illogical not to issue IDs while simultaneously beseeching state prison systems to do so. Finally, given the fact that the federal government has already verified the identities of its inmate population, it seems absurd that they can’t also laminate those identities and hand them out to released men and women on their way home.