Leaving prison? NC’s mind-boggling bureaucracy stands between you, a state-issued ID, and quite possibly your future.

One of the most pervasive challenges for people returning home from incarceration is also one of the least discussed: state-issued ID cards.

Many of us, myself included, take our identification cards for granted. I barely thought twice about it when I was asked for a copy of my ID to rent my apartment, apply for my last job, or enroll in school. That little piece of plastic, though, often stands between reintegration and recidivism for people returning home from incarceration in North Carolina. 

Over 22,000 North Carolinians are released from incarceration each year. Thousands of them find themselves unable to acquire a state-issued ID. The process is so convoluted for the re-entry population that it is nearly impossible for many returning residents. Even if these folks returning home do everything right, the path to freedom, to independence, has been so narrowly circumscribed by state bureaucracy that whether someone succeeds or fails is as much a matter of luck as it is of diligence and perseverance.

Yet, officials with the power to streamline this process, to make it at least fair, continue to drag their feet on this issue. For years, advocates and reentry providers have asked  the Department of Public Safety and NC Division of Motor Vehicles to collaborate on addressing this issue. Unfortunately, little has come from the process except unsuccessful efforts and more excuses.

Why? It’s hard to say, but an educated guess would have to be a lack of concern.

The state identifies people every day to charge, convict, and incarcerate them for years. Yet as soon as someone walks out of those prison gates, the apparatus of the state is overcome by bureaucratic amnesia. When that person shows up to the NCDMV to get a new ID post-incarceration, it’s as though the person never existed. They are required to secure a whole other series of documents proving they are who they say they are, including a social security card and birth certificate.

You may think to yourself that it’s not such a big deal. The big deal is actually a series of smaller obstacles that, for many, become almost insurmountable.

First, the birth certificate.

To get a birth certificate, you need ID. While you can technically use a prison-issued ID card according to the paper application, several local reentry service providers have found that, in practice, local Register of Deeds offices have refused to provide birth certificates without a state-issued ID, license or passport.

An NC birth certificate costs $24. For someone who has just left prison, $24 is often too much money. If they can scrape together $24 though, they still need to wait as long as five weeks to receive that certificate.

Worse yet, many incarcerated folks were not born in North Carolina. Several states’ vital records offices explicitly do not accept prison-issued IDs, set higher prices, and require even longer processing times than here.

Let’s say someone has managed to jump through all of these hoops to get a birth certificate. Next up is the social security card.

Guess what you need to get a social security card, in addition to a birth certificate? That’s right. A state-issued ID.

Let’s assume that even though you do not have a state-issued ID, you obtained your birth certificate (after five weeks of waiting) and miraculously have one of the few possible replacements for a state-issued ID: an employee ID, a school ID, a health insurance card with a picture, or a military ID.

It will still take another two to four weeks to receive your social security card. By the time you get the documents you need just to apply for a state-issued ID — again, even though the state was certain enough of your identity to lock you away for years — you will have been out of prison for over two months. 

If you apply for an ID card as soon as you have your other documents in hand plus another $14, you will get your state-issued ID over three months after you were released from prison. 

Over three months of not being able to apply for jobs or housing. 

Over three months of not being able to provide for yourself or your family. 

Over three months of being stagnant, waiting for the state to finally recognize your existence, waiting to start the life you planned every day you were incarcerated, fending off an old life that may be nipping at your heels.  

Perhaps the worst part about this system is how easy it would be to fix. While prisons issue their own version of ID cards to people upon their release, the NCDMV does not currently recognize these prison-issued IDs as a valid proof of identity. All of these bureaucratic challenges could be eliminated if the state would join a number of other states by making it mandatory for NCDMVs to accept prison-issued IDs and release paperwork as proof of identity and social security numbers. They could do this either by agency policy or statute. Easy. Inexpensive. Perfectly possible. 

It’s time for state agencies to start caring about the reentry population. More and more North Carolinians are released from prison every day. The least we can do as a state is give them the tools they need to survive, starting with state-issued ID. 

Isabel Shapiro is an intern with the NC Justice Center’s Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project.

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