Criminal justice

A year after reforms were promised, people leaving New York jails and prisons still lack IDs

Reentering society without ID makes jobs and apartments almost impossible to get. Still, many people getting out of prison are without the essential paperwork.

It took two months for Keith Gaffney to obtain a replacement Social Security card after being released from prison in June 2020.

It took two months for Keith Gaffney to obtain a replacement Social Security card after being released from prison in June 2020. Courtesy of Keith Gaffney

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.

Keith Gaffney

“[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.

NEXT STORY: Will the SoHo/NoHo rezoning help or harm Chinatown? Depends who you ask.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.