Common challenges after prison
People re-entering their communities after time in NC prisons face many challenges. For instance, upon release, they must quickly find stable housing, a job, and meet the requirements of their parole or post-release supervision. They also need to find transportation to job interviews and to meetings with their parole officer. In addition to the stress of being back in the community they live every day knowing that if they can’t find a job or housing they could be sent back to prison.
While there are organizations statewide dedicated to easing this transition, resources are insufficient to meet the need, and folks re-entering society still face many institutional barriers. Some of these barriers are obvious – lack of stable housing upon release, trouble accessing a reliable cell phone or internet connection, employer bias toward people with a criminal record, among others. However, some are not so obvious. Access to a NC state ID is a nearly insurmountable barrier that keeps many re-entering people from successfully getting a job, housing, education, and a meaningful way to continue on their path to rehabilitation.
If you have had some form of ID since your teenage years, it may not be initially clear how crucial having an official state ID is to simply exist in our society. Employers, landlords, college administrators, and many other institutions all require a valid state ID. If you don’t have an ID and law enforcement approaches you, you can be detained or even arrested. People re-entering their communities absolutely need an ID to fulfill their supervision obligations. However, documentation requirements and bureaucratic roadblocks often leave people in limbo. They are motivated to become contributing members of their communities, but are thwarted by their inability to obtain a State ID.
Why is it so hard to get an NC ID?
The problem stems from the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Public Safety failing to communicate with each other regarding DMV documentation requirements. Broadly, the DMV requires proof of identity, residence, and social security number to obtain a State ID. Often, people coming out of prisons have only expired IDs, if any at all. Many do not have proper documentation, which may be lost or destroyed during their incarceration. They face many challenges to getting new copies of the necessary documentation – many don’t have stable access to the internet to order new documents, don’t have permanent addresses where the documents can be sent, or lack the financial means to pay fees associated with ordering new documents.
To make matters worse, the NC system has conflicting requirements that make acquiring copies of certain documents nearly impossible. For instance, the DMV will often require a birth certificate to prove identity. However, NC requires a state photo ID to order a birth certificate. Those without a photo ID or birth certificate are then unable to get either.
The barriers to obtaining a State ID are especially frustrating given the high level of supervision imposed on people recently released from prison. The State knows who they are. DPS has records on everyone released that includes social security numbers, photos, addresses, fingerprints – far more information than required for a State ID. However, despite the fact that DPS has all of this information, another department within the same branch of government, the DMV, turns them down for lack of documentation. It is a particularly cruel system.
Finding a solution
An interim cooperative plan between the DMV and DPS is working to address this problem. The plan allows recently released people to present their offender release documents at a DMV location. Under the interim plan, anyone with an accessible driving record and SSN can then be issued an ID. While advocates praise this step forward, the interim plan needs to also address people who may slip through the cracks (for example, those without a previous driving record). The plan must be permanent and universal, and it must not rely on DMV or DPS staffing levels. To ensure these improvements to the plan, advocates and people with lived experience must be involved in the planning process.
Everyone released from prison deserves a fair shot at re-joining their communities and starting on a new path. Bureaucratic red tape should not stand in the way of anyone’s future, and certainly should not send anyone back to prison. Access to an ID is especially important for people with disabilities, as their access to healthcare and other necessities can be jeopardized by not having adequate ID. We urge the DMV and DPS to incorporate advocates into their planning process to ensure their plan addresses the needs of all North Carolinians.
Advocacy agencies across the state have recognized the importance of this issue and support easing restrictions on NCID requirements for people recently released from DPS facilities, including:
- NC ACLU
- North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services
- Emancipate NC
- NC Justice
- Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham
- Disability Rights NC
Personal accounts of being unable to access an NC ID
A few months ago, a coalition of advocacy agencies held a listening session for recently released people to share their stories of how difficult it is to obtain identification, and how it affected their lives. Click the links below to listen to their experiences.
“I came home with nothing, you know, I came home without ID, without a birth certificate, without a Social Security card because I was gone for so long. When the policy in the prison is that they are supposed to be able to get those documents for you, upon your release . . . And under these COVID conditions getting the ID for someone who is returning to society is very hard . . . And that person is living in limbo, due to the fact that he doesn’t have the proper identification, even though they know who he is because they’re under supervision with the state. The state, in turn should be able to have these protocols set up not just upon release in prison, but the probation place itself. They should have something set in place for these individuals when they return to society”
“Not having an ID is one of the things that a person will set a person back because as everybody will tell you can’t get a job without, you know without having an identification, a North Carolina State ID, you can’t get housing, you can’t get any of these things. And these collateral consequences will continue to be placed upon us. If we don’t get those documents. This is so very much important to reentry, I hear a lot of people say reentry without putting the word successful in front of so we have to understand that every entry, our re entry into society has to be successful. In order for it to be successful, those barriers have to be removed, in order for those barriers have to be removed then we have to hold those that are that are in position the law makers and policy makers, we have to start holding them accountable”
“I’m currently after three months having struggled on the streets outside the house in parks and living with family members and trying to readjust to society. I wasn’t able to get into any housing programs for reentry or anything of that nature because I didn’t have an ID. And so it turns out that having an ID is essential to reentry itself. It’s almost impossible to blend back in this society without an ID or acquire the things you need. Because you don’t have an ID.”
“When I was released, I was still in a wheelchair. It was very difficult for me, I was in a lot of pain. And I didn’t really know what to expect when I first got out of prison, but I found that it was very difficult, for several reasons. One reason I was in a lot of pain and that I was trying to get to the hospital. And myself, I didn’t have any medical insurance and the medical petitioning me for identification that I didn’t have . . . I wasn’t able to put any money away because I didn’t have an ID. So I wasn’t able to go to the hospital”
“And like I always say it to everybody how they can keep us in prison. They know who we is. But when we get out, we can’t get no ID we can’t we can’t just like if they pick us up right now or stop the car. And we just riding then they say well where’s. Do you have an ID? You don’t have no ID you go downtown. And I’ve been told that by a police officer . . . You keep us in prison and then you turn us a loose with no ID, no ID, knowing that you’ve got to have two sets of North Carolina ID and they give you one. The prison just kick you out, just throw you out.”
“Upon my release, it was hard with my prison ID. It took I think about maybe about four weeks for me to finally get an official ID. . . I definitely had my wallet with me upon my incarceration time when I got arrested, so it should have traveled with me, however, somehow it got lost. So I didn’t have anything to show who I was other than my prison ID. And that’s actually pretty embarrassing when you’re going into places and you’re trying to integrate back into society. And unfortunately, you have to pull out your prison photo to say like, Hey, this is who I am. And so now everybody has this like stigma about you while you’re standing in their store or in their area or anything of that nature.”
Sabrina Joy Mommer
“I have had trouble even securing employment. Um, I can’t get my North Carolina ID because I don’t have anything with a Social Security number on it from any time in the last decade and a half. So I can’t get a North Carolina ID either. Um, you know, the being a lawyer, the idea of incarceration is rehabilitation. But yet, when you get out, you don’t even have the opportunity to secure housing, or, in a lot of cases employment without proper identification. So how are you supposed to go about being rehabilitated?”