If you’re an inmate just out of jail, your photo ID is a key to getting a job and staying out of trouble. Unless the D.C. Department of Corrections has destroyed it.
Joseph Thorne sits in the lobby of a senior citizens’ residence on M Street, where he’s been visiting a friend. With slightly graying temples and a measured gait, he hardly looks like an ex-con—let alone a guy just seven months out of the slammer. But Thorne can still bang out the date he got out of prison: Sept. 9, 1999. “I remember because I heard on the news the night before [that] people were paranoid of the number nine nine ninety-nine,” he says.
Thorne, 53, is a former security guard who worked under contract for the U.S. General Services Administration for 11 years. He served 23 months in Lorton Reformatory for attempted burglary. “I remember lying down at Lorton that night. Then, early the next morning, the guard said, ‘Thorne! Wake up!’ I thought I was dreaming, so I didn’t wake up. He said, ‘Man, get up and pack your stuff—you’re leaving!’”
The day he was released, Thorne moved into Hope Village, a halfway house on Langston Place in Southeast Washington’s Garfield Heights neighborhood. At Hope Village, residents must find a job within 15 days, or halfway-house officials can recommend that they be sent back to jail. Thorne hit the pavement. He wanted to be a security guard at St. Elizabeths Hospital. But when he arrived to apply, he was promptly turned away.
The reason was not what Thorne had on his record—which he hadn’t even had time to mention—but what he didn’t have on his person: identification papers. “They wanted picture ID, a birth certificate, and a GED in my hand. I didn’t have it. One of the secretaries said if I don’t have ID I might as well leave now, because [her boss] won’t see me.”
Thorne once had a Social Security card, a nondriver’s photo ID, and a disability card from Metro, but the police confiscated them all when he was arrested. When he went to the D.C. Jail before finishing out his sentence in Lorton, corrections officials destroyed his belongings, including his ID.
“We hold inmates’ property for 15 days, no matter what it is,” says Department of Corrections spokesperson Darryl Madden. “Inmates sign a statement saying they’re aware we’re holding it for 15 days. We hold it in locked storage at D.C. Jail. They have to make some type of arrangement to save it. If nobody comes in 15 days, we destroy it.” According to Madden, “only a very small number of inmates” have their property destroyed.
Yet social workers who help ex-offenders find jobs say they see people in Thorne’s predicament all the time. The advocates argue that for folks who’ve been unable to have someone pick up their belongings, obtaining photo ID can be a not-so-minor hurdle on the way to landing a job and staying out of jail. Destroying the cards, newly released inmates complain, is one small way the correctional system can set them up for failure.
“I’m getting swamped with guys coming from halfway houses,” says Ben Stith, chief case manager with Conquest House, an organization that helps recently released inmates reintegrate into society. “IDs are not so big that they can’t put them in a file cabinet. When you get out, lots of times they don’t give you a dime—they put you out with nothing. Some guys are going to get back in trouble.”
Americans like to pride themselves on not having national ID cards. In old spy movies, after all, the characters demanding to see “your papers” are always vaguely Teutonic and decidedly creepy. Ask people whose driver’s licenses have wound up in the D.C. Jail incinerator, though, and they’ll tell you that even in the Land of the Free, obtaining identification when you have none ain’t easy. And it’s even harder if you also have no permanent address and no job.
It turns out that to get one form of ID typically requires…another piece of ID. Before you can get a nondriver’s identification card, you have to have a birth certificate and a Social Security card. But to get a copy of your birth certificate and a new Social Security card, you usually have to have photo ID.
Not having identification can have wide-ranging repercussions. By law, employers can’t hire anyone who doesn’t have photo ID and a Social Security number. Some overnight shelters also require photo ID, as do agencies that dispense food stamps and Medicaid.
Ex-offenders without ID do have access to a few documents with which to begin their paper chase. They may, for instance, use their release papers or a letter of introduction from their halfway-house manager or parole officer to get a new copy of a birth certificate.
To get a new Social Security card, however, they need a document with a Social Security number on it—such as a driver’s license, a payroll stub, or a W-2 form. Many ex-offenders don’t have any of these. The Social Security Administration will, however, accept a D.C. public school transcript, which carries a Social Security number.
Once newly released inmates have a Social Security card and birth certificate, they still need proof of residency to get a nondriver’s ID or a driver’s license—the most basic of identity-proving tools. But if you’ve been in jail for a while, you’re not likely to have a permanent address. Proof of residency for ex-offenders can consist of a letter from the person they’re living with plus a copy of that person’s ID, or a utility bill, or a letter from a shelter. Simple enough, but many newly released inmates may not be aware of these options.
Thorne’s attempt to get a copy of his North Carolina birth certificate last year turned into an ordeal after it got lost in the mail. With the help of social worker Carol Lieberman at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church, he sent away for his birth certificate as soon as he arrived at Hope Village last September. The Vital Records Branch of the North Carolina Center for Health Statistics says it sent a copy of the certificate back to the halfway house. He says he never received it.
A second copy—which North Carolina officials agreed to send for free—also got lost. Finally, Lieberman had the birth certificate sent directly to her at the church. Thorne received it four months after he first applied.
In the meantime, Thorne was able to get work—and avoid being sent back to prison. He had received food stamps before he went to jail, so the Department of Human Services was able to give him a photo ID with his Social Security number on it. Thorne used this ID to secure a job washing dishes at Bertolini’s, a restaurant at 8th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Washington.
But Thorne, who suffers from seizures and other disabilities, left the job after a month. He’s since moved out of Hope Village and now lives in Catholic Charities’ St. Matthias Mulumba House, a shelter for men on Rhode Island Avenue NW.
Four days a week, people arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church just to be among the first 12 names on a chalkboard. The lucky 12 get to sit with members of the Volunteer Assistance Corps, the church’s outreach ministry. In two small offices off a side entrance to the church, Lieberman and outreach worker Juan Carlos Benavides help the homeless, unemployed, and working poor obtain identification documents.
On a rainy Friday, almost all of the people in the church are residents of a halfway house. After each interview, Lieberman usually writes a check to the D.C. Treasurer that will cover the $15 fee for a nondriver’s ID and the $12 fee for a D.C. birth certificate. She estimates that her ministry spent at least $16,000 last year subsidizing IDs for nearly 1,200 clients, many of whom were newly released inmates. “That’s a lot of money for a tiny organization like ours,” she says.
Lieberman’s first client on this wet day is back for a repeat visit, this time seeking the church’s free transportation tokens. The Hope Village resident, who is in his late 20s, sports a light-brown plaid shirt and braids that fall to his shoulders. Like Thorne, he also experienced being turned away from a couple of jobs for lack of ID. “Got ID—only way you gonna be able to work,” he says. “You got to start [to get ID] from blank blank.”
Once the man—who, appropriately enough, declines to be identified—found his way to Lieberman, she helped him get a birth certificate and a Social Security card, which he used to get a nondriver’s photo ID. He’s since found work as a
day laborer with a temporary employment company in Maryland called America’s Labor, which hires many Hope Village residents.
But the man says that if he hadn’t found work when he did, the counselors at the halfway house would have threatened to send him back to jail. “You got to have a job to stay there,” he says. “You can’t argue with them. If you argue, then they gonna lock you back up.”
Hope Village’s supervisor Joseph Wilmer denies returning men to prison simply for not being able to find work within 15 days. “We send them on job leads. If they show they’re not going to look for a job, they’re subject to disciplinary action,” says Wilmer, who agrees that missing ID cards are a big problem. “It would make their lives easier if they had picture IDs and Social Security
cards. It would speed up things for them, of course.”
Last June, Lieberman wrote to the D.C. Department of Corrections for help doing just that. In August, Corrections Director Odie Washington responded: “Due to lack of storage space, the Central Detention Facility is unable to maintain personal property for longer periods [than 15 days].”
Washington promised to review the policy. “I haven’t heard anything since,” says Lieberman, who wrote again last November.
IDs came up again at an April 1 public forum on halfway houses. One by one, Stith and others who work with ex-offenders asked offender-supervision officials and halfway-house managers whether they would change the department’s policy of destroying inmates’ IDs. James Murphy, the D.C. Department of Corrections’ administrator for community corrections, has set a meeting for next week. Madden says the department is still reviewing the policy.
In the meantime, social-service providers say a growing number of people from halfway houses are asking for help getting identification. Foundry United Methodist Church is now “tailoring what we’re doing to meet that need,” says the Rev. Jennifer Knutsen, the church’s minister of missions. Knutsen says the church plans to devote more of its outreach budget to pay for IDs for those who can’t afford to.
Ex-offenders could certainly use more places to go for help with identification documents, says Stith. “I know guys who’ve walked from halfway houses [in Southeast] to Chevy Chase Presbyterian,” he says.
Back at the church, a man in his 40s with short hair and big plastic eyeglass frames takes a seat in the folding chair across from Lieberman. He says he has just gotten out of prison and is staying at a shelter. He’s been job-searching—he used to be a heavy equipment operator—but hasn’t had much luck without photo ID.
The man listens patiently as Lieberman explains that it will take about two weeks for a birth certificate to arrive from South Carolina, but he’s clearly frustrated. “Who is you if you got no ID? I’m Mr. So-and-So. But who is you?” he says. “Just ’cause you say that don’t mean nothing.” CP