This story is published in partnership with New York Focus.
In June 2020, Keith Gaffney was released from federal prison after over 16 years of incarceration. He had applied for a Social Security card while in prison but wasn’t able to complete the process before being released, so he left without any formal identification.
Leaving without ID made the already difficult process of reintegrating into society doubly challenging. “Not being able to get employment, not being able to get any type of assistance, not being able to get insurance – those are some of the difficulties I faced,” Gaffney told City & State.
Gaffney was one of hundreds of New Yorkers released from jails and prisons throughout the state each year who are unable to apply for jobs, rent apartments or access government benefits simply because they don’t have ID.
In many cases in New York City, the city confiscates defendants’ IDs and then loses them by the time they’re released, New York Focus reported in October 2020.
Asked about the New York Focus report at a hearing that month held by the City Council’s now-defunct Committee on the Justice System, an official at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice promised interagency collaboration to address the problem in city jails.
“[We’re] in the process of beginning a sort of multiagency task force to address this very issue,” the official, Anna Calabrese, told committee chair Rory Lancman. “There’s broad consensus that we can do more … to help individuals leaving city jails obtain ID.”
But over a year later, there have been no changes in city policy to ease the process of obtaining ID. Instead, according to staff at organizations that help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society, changes to city policy have made it even harder.
Meanwhile, people leaving state prisons are even more likely to lack ID. “Many folks from Rikers are coming home without an ID. (In prisons) upstate, it's nearly all,” said Chelsea Kraimer, the director of reentry services at the reentry organization Getting Out Staying Out.Last year, Assembly Member David Weprin and then-state Sen. Brian Benjamin introduced a bill to mandate that all New Yorkers leaving state and federal prisons be given non-driver IDs issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. It passed the state Senate in May but stalled in the Assembly. Weprin said he’s optimistic that it’ll pass when the Legislature reconvenes in January and that Gov. Kathy Hochul will sign it.
“It can be passed the first day of session, so I’m going to make it a priority to move it along quickly in January,” Weprin told New York Focus. “The fact that Brian Benjamin is lieutenant governor will help him encourage the governor to sign it.”
A spokesperson for Hochul wrote that she will “carefully review” the legislation if it reaches her desk.
If Weprin’s bill passes, New York would become one of several states with such a requirement. Alaska, Florida, Illinois, and Mississippi already do so. Other states, including Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and Idaho, have DMV machines in prisons that incarcerated people can use to apply for state IDs.
The bill does not address jails in New York City or upstate counties. Asked by City & State, Weprin said he would introduce legislation to include them as well. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply to them,” he said.
‘You need ID to obtain ID’
ID cards are often lost during the process of transferring people and their belongings between the many institutions of the criminal justice system – police precincts, courts, jails and prisons.
This summer, Ronald Jackson was released from prison after a Manhattan judge threw out his 2014 conviction and ordered a new trial. Jackson had been incarcerated for nine years, most of which he spent at Fishkill Correctional Facility, a prison in Dutchess County.
When he was transferred from Fishkill to Rikers Island in June 2020 to await the court date at which his conviction was overturned, Jackson was only allowed to bring a small bag with him. He left four other bags of personal property at Fishkill, containing clothes, shoes, legal documents and, perhaps most importantly, his Social Security card, birth certificate and COVID vaccination card.
When he was released, he called Fishkill to ask about getting his belongings – but he was told the prison staff had lost track of them, he said.
Jackson was first told the bags had been sent to Rikers, then that they were still at Fishkill. Next, his caseworker at the Fortune Society, a reentry organization, was told that they were at another prison, Downstate Correctional Facility. Four months after his release, Jackson still hasn’t been able to locate them.
“Nobody knows where the bags are,” Jackson said. “They’ve been giving everybody the run around.”
Asked about Jackson’s belongings, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections again claimed they were stored at the Fishkill facility and that attempts to contact Jackson were unsuccessful.
Without ID, Jackson has been unable to get paid work, despite getting offers from multiple employers including Amazon, Target and CVS, he said.
“I got plenty of job offers, but I didn’t have my identification,” he said. “I’m stunted. A part time job would keep me going.”
In August, Jackson attempted to go to a Social Security Administration office to see about replacing his Social Security card, but it was closed due to the pandemic. “They wouldn’t even let nobody in the building,” he said.
But getting an appointment would only be the first step in the process. What makes obtaining a new ID so difficult, Gaffney said, is that “you need ID to obtain ID.”
Replacing a lost ID involves a kafkaesque process of persuading any one of half a dozen agencies to issue a document that proves one’s identity and can be used to obtain further ID – and running against the wall that those documents usually require other documentation.
Getting on the first rung of the ladder can involve convoluted schemes. One person interviewed last year by New York Focus recounted purchasing a fake ID with his real information, and then using that fake ID to acquire a replacement birth certificate.
Gaffney had better luck than most – but it still took him two months after his release to cobble together a doctor’s letter, a letter from his halfway house, his furlough papers and other documents from his incarceration that added up to enough documentation to get a Social Security card.
Before getting the card, he wasn’t able to find a job, or access government benefits such as Medicaid. But once he got the ID, the problems he had faced reintegrating “all went away,” Gaffney said.
“I’m working, I’ve been working, I have insurance,” he said.
‘You know exactly who I am’
A year after the de Blasio administration promised solutions at the City Council hearing on housing and reentry, little has changed.
“We’ve seen people go over a year without being able to access [IDs],” Kraimer said. “I’ve seen some people who have been home since March 2020 and still don’t have an ID.”
Some aspects of the problem have gotten worse over the course of the pandemic, and have been exacerbated by the ongoing humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island. Jack Powers, an advocate with Youth Justice Network, an organization that provides services to young people on Rikers Island, estimated that a quarter of his clients' IDs are lost or confiscated at some point between arrest and release.
“Because that situation is so horrendous, there are minimal reentry services going to the island and meeting people there. That causes a huge rift in the process of gaining identification,” Powers said. “It’s more difficult … now than it was a year ago.”
Other bureaucratic changes have also made the process more arduous.
One way to get ID has historically been EBT cards, government-issued identification used like debit cards by individuals receiving food stamps or cash welfare. EBT cards are often possible to obtain without other forms of identification, and have functioned as a limited form of photo ID that can be used to replace birth certificates and social security cards.
“It wasn’t foolproof, but it was an often successful entry into getting IDs,” Nick Posada, benefits coordinator at the Fortune Society, told City & State.
But due to a provision of the 2020 state budget, the Department of Social Services, the city agency responsible for dispensing EBT cards, has stopped putting recipients' photos on the cards. Without photos, the cards can no longer be used to get a new ID. Posada estimated that around 100 of his clients had been stymied by this change while attempting to replace their IDs over the past year.
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services confirmed that the agency is no longer issuing EBT cards with photo identification.
The same budget provision that eliminated photo EBT cards made EBT recipients eligible for free non-driver's identification from the DMV as a replacement photo ID.
But not all EBT recipients are aware that this option exists. “I had no idea of that,” Jackson said.
And attempting to get such an ID can also be a lengthy and involved process. “You used to be able to walk into DMV and grab a ticket and wait,” Powers said, noting that the same was true for other ID-issuing agencies such as the Office of Vital Records and the Social Security Administration. “Now you need an appointment two months in advance, three months in advance.”
“Time is critical when someone gets out of jail,” he added.
For much of the pandemic, with agency offices closed, applications for IDs could only be done online. For a population that often doesn’t have access to computers, this proved difficult.
And the move to online services brought other challenges. VitalChek, a private company that is New York’s sole online purveyor of birth certificates, charges $45 per copy, more than double the $17.75 charged in-person by the Office of Vital Records.
“If getting $17.75 is a hard thing for you to do, then how are you going to get $45?” Posada said.
VitalChek did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration requires mail applicants for a Social Security card to send originals of their application materials.
“You have to send them your real birth certificate, your real EBT card, and hope that they send it back,” Posada said. Some applicants never got back original birth certificates, even if they got a Social Security card.
“There’s people that are like ‘Yeah, I’m not doing that,’” he said. “I wouldn’t do it either.”
A few months ago, several agency offices reopened on a limited in-person schedule. The Social Security Administration is offering in person services “by appointment only for limited in person dire need situations,” according to a recorded message.
A Department of Corrections spokesperson said the agency has been working with the city’s Department of Social Services in “pushing forward an initiative that will assist individuals leaving DOC custody obtain City-issued identification.”
The spokesperson declined to provide details on when the initiative will launch or how specifically it will help people leaving incarceration obtain ID. In 2016, a pilot program to issue city ID at Rikers Island was shut down after just one month due to logistical issues.
Gaffney said that the best solution would be to provide IDs to incarcerated people before they’re released.
“There needs to be a system in place so that when people come home, they already have the IDs,” Gaffney said.“You had me incarcerated for sixteen years. So you know exactly who I am.”
New York Focus is an independent investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.