For men and women coming out of prison every year, one of the first steps to re-entering society can be one of the most difficult: simply getting a valid ID. William Brangham reports on the many hurdles returning citizens often face trying to rebuild their identification as part of our ongoing series, “Searching for Justice.”
For men and women coming out of prison every year, one of the first steps to reentering society can be one of the most difficult, simply getting a valid I.D.
William Brangham examines the many hurdles returning citizens face trying to rebuild their identification.
This story is part of our ongoing series Searching For Justice.
After 27 years behind bars for armed robbery, in September, Kenneth Taylor became a free man, free from jail, yes, but stuck in limbo.
I feel invisible. I do.
Why? Because Taylor left a Louisiana prison without any form of valid identification, no Social Security card, no birth certificate, no way to prove who he actually was.
It is crazy — it's nobody know I exist right now.
I remember this picture vividly.
He's been out more than four months like this. His son, Ken Mackie, and lawyers at a local New Orleans nonprofit are still helping him piece his life back together one document at a time.
It's been just obstacle after obstacle, trying to get his I.D., his Social Security, and birth certificate.
They have been in frequent contact with Louisiana's Department of Corrections trying to get this fixed.
They attempted to send me a birth certificate and a Social Security card, which was totally not me.
They sent you identifications that they thought were supposed to be yours, and they were not yours?
They were not mine.
Taylor later received his actual birth certificate. That will help, but he still doesn't have a Social Security card. That means he can't apply for many jobs or social services like food assistance. And, in Louisiana, you can actually be arrested for not being able to provide proof of identity.
My biggest fear is being stopped by the police department and brung to jail because I don't have an I.D.
Not having an I.D. is a problem that thousands of people face every year reentering society. And during the pandemic, it's only gotten worse, according to Martin Horn. He used to be the head of corrections for both New York City and the state of Pennsylvania.
The offices are closed. Even the people who might be able to assist them in prison are often either absent because they're ill or working remotely, not to mention the fact that prisoners, by and large, do not have easy access to the kinds of Internet connections that would be necessary.
And without identification, Horn says it's impossible to reintegrate into society.
Getting out of prison or jail, the most crucial element to success is being able to support yourself. And without the documents, you can't support yourself. You can't get a job.
Do you have your passport, birth certificate, social, and two proofs of address?
Just navigating the bureaucracy can be overwhelming.
Two proofs of address? Well, I have one proof of address and my birth certificate, and my Social Security card.
We're still missing one more proof because we don't have anything on file for you.
Marlon Jackson just got out of prison a few weeks ago. He served 24 years for robbery and sexual battery.
The only thing they gave me upon my release was this right here. That's it. They gave me no other form of I.D., nothing.
He's at a mobile DMV office in Richmond, Virginia, trying to prove he's who he says he is, and to get a legitimate, legal I.D.
We won't be able to accept this, because this is an original document.
The problem is, the only document he received upon leaving prison had the wrong Social Security number on it.
This is not sufficient, because I need a primary proof of address.
Sarah Scarbrough is the founder of a nonprofit called REAL Life. They organized this makeshift DMV because of the massive backlog created by the pandemic.
So, if our folks got out of jail, they would have to wait for about five months to be able to get an appointment at DMV to get an I.D., which means five months until they can get a job, five months until they can find a place to live and sign a rental agreement or anything.
After more than an hour of waiting and pleading, it looked like Jackson would be turned away. It seems he needed more evidence of his housing.
But you probably won't be able to get that today, because we're only here until 11:30.
This moment right now is big. It's important. It's imperative. So, if I don't receive an I.D. today, which, I don't know, maybe I got 15 or 20 more minutes to get it, but — and, hopefully, I will.
But, otherwise, you might have to be waiting three or four months to…
Otherwise, I'd be waiting 90 to 120 days.
But at the last minute, with Scarbrough and her colleagues' help, Jackson got his I.D.
Go to the left a bit. There you go.
This is the start of something beautiful. It is a start, just a picture saying, hey, this is Marlon. This is where I live at.
But it will unlock one door.
This piece of paper is going to be crucial.
The last hurdle though for many formerly incarcerated people is what's considered the gold standard I.D., a driver's license.
Wow. I can't believe it. I can drive.
Anthony Gomez was released from prison in September, after doing 23 years for a murder he committed when he was 17.
He's just passed the Virginia driver's test, after waiting weeks to get a DMV appointment.
You couldn't get a DMV appointment to save your life.
Since his release, he's found a job as a paralegal, working with a lawyer he met while he was behind bars. He's now living with his mom outside of Richmond. He's hoping to also get some construction work, but he can't take a job that he can't get to.
With those type of jobs, you have to move around. You have to get from point A to point B. And then, when that job is done, you have to get over here. And you can't be dependent on the people that's hiring you to come pick you up and then take you.
Right. And I can tell from where you live it's not like there's a bus or a subway up the corner.
For that reason alone, like, I really want my license, because I feel like, OK, it doesn't mean that I'm going to be getting in a car and disappearing every day.
But I think just the thought that, if I want to go somewhere, I don't have to be dependent on someone, you know, that's part of the freedom.
Kenneth Taylor is still searching for that freedom. He found work as a personal trainer at a New Orleans boxing gym, but he remains frustrated that the Department of Corrections released him with no real way to start over.
You knew who I was when you sentenced me. So, you kept me there 27.5 years. You kept me there knowing who I was, right? And then you sent me out there like you don't never knew who I was.
We reached out to Louisiana's Department of Corrections for comment on Taylor's case.
A spokesman responded, saying — quote — "Despite the pandemic, last year, 96.7 percent of inmates who were released from Louisiana's state institutions walked out of prison with at least two forms of identification. Cases like Mr. Taylor's are the exception, and not the rule."
Generally speaking, do prisons and prison officials help people returning to society get those documents ahead of time?
Some more than others. I think there are very few that actually invest time, effort and money in providing assistance in doing that, because there is a cost to providing that assistance.
But the cost of them being unemployed, the cost of them being homeless and in need of shelter, the cost of their admission to the emergency room, or the cost of a new crime and their imprisonment is going to be far greater than whatever we spend to facilitate their success.
Kenneth Taylor says he can't fully start a new life until he can prove his old one existed.
It's like a ball and chain, like, type deal. Like, I'm still connected to the prison, and I don't want to be connected to prison system ever.
I'm trying to chop the chain off, where I can move where I want to move, and freely, and don't — living and be scared of anything.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
Gretchen Frazee is a Senior Coordinating Broadcast Producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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