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Out of Jail but Without an Identity

For many people who are released from incarceration, simply acquiring a government photo ID that lets them collect benefits, get a job, and reintegrate into society is nearly impossible, but some groups are working to change this sad situation.
December 30, 2013, 6:00pm

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. Photo via Flickr user Rynerson Bail Bonds

“I know firsthand what it means to get off a bus downtown, Skid Row, and try to make a life with less than $200, no ID, no Social Security card, no beginning,” said Susan Burton. Her story isn’t unusual for someone who’s been locked up in California—Susan served six prison terms in the 80s and 90s for nonviolent offenses after becoming addicted to drugs following the death of her five-year-old son, who was run over by an off-duty cop. Unlike many prisoners in California, however, she ended up breaking the cycle in spite of a system that sets up the formerly incarcerated for failure.

Today, Susan heads A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, a group she founded to help women in South LA reintegrate into society after stints in the slammer, providing the housing and job training that helps keep people off the street and out of prison and filling the gap left by the often-inadequate government services. At a public meeting on December 17, she approached the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in support of a simple idea: Make things a tiny bit easier for those being released from jail by issuing them the basic legal identification they need in order to prove who they are and rebuild their lives.

Getting a legal form of ID is a routine errand for most people. It’s not so easy, however, if, like many people who wind up in jail, you're broke, living a transient lifestyle, and don’t have a car in a city that dismantled its public transit system in favor of freeways. Without a birth certificate it’s next to impossible to get that ID or a Social Security card and the benefits that come with it. Susan told the board of supervisors some of the women she works with wait three to four months—sometimes even a year—before they’re legitimatized by a piece of paper.

Julio Tejada, a former juvenile offender, was one of several young people at the meeting who urged the board to ease the transition of people like him back into the community. He said people who attribute a lack of identification to sheer laziness have no idea what it's like being young and poor and just released from jail. “What they don't know is the little things that happen [on the way to getting ID],” he testified, “like missing school or annoying our families, mothers missing work and complaining about it afterwards.”

On any given day, there are 19,000 adults awaiting trial or serving sentences in LA County detention facilities, noted Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and 160,000 people cycle through the system each year. At the December 17 meeting, Ridley-Thomas introduced a motion calling on the county to study how it might issue legal ID and vital records to those people as well as the 17,000 youth on probation and the nearly 1,800 locked up in juvenile detention. The motion passed on a 5-0 vote; a report back is due in January.

“The majority of these individuals will ultimately be released back into the community without basic identification,” the motion states. And without ID, “ex-offenders cannot prove their identity to law enforcement officials, face increased barriers to employment and housing, and increases [sic] the prospect of an ex-offender recidivating.”

Despite having less than 24 hours’ notice that the proposal would be debated, more than 50 people, many of them teenagers, sought to testify in favor of it at the meeting. Limited time meant only a handful got the chance.

“I believe that people coming home from incarceration, it's a necessity for them to be able to have IDs and birth certificates,” said Brandon Elliot, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, a local group of formerly incarcerated youth and their allies who have spent two years lobbying for a change on the ID issue.

“I really just think it's a humane thing to do,” Brandon told the board of supervisors, discussing how hard it was for him to get out of juvenile detention without any way to legally prove who he was. Lacking an ID was just one more obstacle to him getting on the right track in life, he said. The county has the power to change that, and Brandon said that that would make a world of difference in the lives of ex-offenders like him.

“Not only will they have their ID and birth certificates to come out and do the things they need to do to get their lives together, they will feel believed in,” Brandon testified. “They will be like, ‘There are people behind me willing to invest in me.’”

The motion’s passage is a victory, but not a final one. The LA Board of Supervisors is perceived as a more conservative political body than the city of LA as a whole, and it’s not hard to imagine its members balking at spending $30 a pop on IDs for the formerly incarcerated, whose lack of resources and opportunity are all too often written off individual failings rather than a product of a failing system of mass incarceration.

Ridley-Thomas’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the supervisor expects the support of his colleagues when county officials report back to the board in January. At the hearing, local activists said they would be foolish not to, as in this case the socially liberal thing to do also happens to also be fiscally conservative. Members of the board may not care all that much about the trials and tribulations of lawbreakers, but they can perhaps work up some anger over how much it’s costing the county to repeatedly lock up, release, and re-arrest those people for what are usually petty nonviolent drug and property crimes.

“If we want to save money, which is clearly the biggest issue here in this body,” said Noreen McClendon, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, a local nonprofit, “we can do it by giving people a fair chance to find employment [and] find a place to live.”

Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera_, the_ New Inquiry_, and_ Salon_._