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Major barriers persist for former prisoners who need IDs

Maeve Lawler
Major barriers persist for former prisoners who need IDs
Supreme Hassan sits in a park in the Fenway area of Boston on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. PHOTO: MAEVE LAWLER, GBH NEWS

Supreme Hassan says he was released from prison in August without a state-issued ID — a document considered crucial to succeeding outside of prison walls.

The 51-year-old, whose birth name is Jeffrey Hilton, left prison after 33 years excited to start his new life. He moved to a halfway house in Boston. But several months later, he says he still struggles to create the building blocks of his new life, like opening a bank account or applying for jobs.

“Without a state ID, I just do not exist within the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Hassan told GBH News recently.

It’s not supposed to be this way. Last March, Massachusetts officials announced an initiative known as the Enhanced State ID Program to make it easier for people returning from state prison to obtain official identification.

But almost a year later, former prisoners and their advocates say the agreement has not fixed the system and too many people are still leaving prison without the proper documents they need to get along on the outside.

The Department of Correction told GBH News that it helped 572 former prisoners get state IDs in 2023, a fraction of an estimated 3,500 people released from state prison last year.

Prison officials point out that number doesn’t include people being released who already had documents or were not eligible for IDs for other reasons. And the rate of prisoners receiving IDs has increased substantially over the last five years. In 2019, 262 people got IDs with the state’s help, state officials say, less than 4% of more than 7,000 prisoners released.

But the process still is marred by roadblocks, many advocates say, including requirements that eligible applicants have a record on file with the state Registry of Motor Vehicles and a Massachusetts residential address where they are scheduled to live upon release. State prison officials say they are working with the RMV to finalize plans for a mobile unit that would go to prisons so that individuals can create RMV accounts and immediately become eligible for the program.

State Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, a Democrat from Boston, told GBH News that more needs to be done. She says these conditions still create barriers for prisoners who came to Massachusetts from out of state and those without a local address to return to.

To improve the process, Fluker Oakley is sponsoring a bill that would ensure that government officials begin the application at least 120 days before a person is released from state prison or county jails. This would give reentry staff time to gather documentation, like a birth certificate or social security card, at the prison or jail.

The bill also would expand the list of addresses an applicant could use to apply for an ID, including temporary shelters, places of worship, or homes of family and friends. And the legislation stipulates that the RMV must accept an ID issued by a prison or jail as acceptable proof of Massachusetts residency.

Both the House bill and its Senate counterpart are in the early stages of the legislative process. Last month, several groups testified at a hearing in front of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Among witnesses was Jamal Gooding, a former prisoner who now runs a Brockton-based organization called People Affecting Community Change to assist returning citizens. Gooding says he wishes there was a way to make sure that the Department of Correction and the RMV were making promised improvements.

“It’s ridiculous that there’s no way to hold those who were involved in putting together that particular [program] accountable,” he said.

Sen. Sal N. DiDomenico, a Democrat from Everett and sponsor of the Senate bill, told GBH News that a state ID is “fundamental” to accessing basic needs, like housing and applying for jobs.

“There’s a gap in the system, that we feel by addressing this with legislation will allow people to get back on track,” he said.

Michael Ryan, who works at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency, agrees. “One of the major hurdles that this bill would clear up is the residency requirement,” he said.

Legislative improvements, if approved, will come too late for people like Truth, whose birth name is Sean Evelyn. Truth says he was released from state prison over a year ago and was without a state ID for almost four months.

He says prison officials told him that his ID would be ready for him before his release, but he learned later that his application was never filed. Truth, who works as a reentry coach at the Lowell-based nonprofit United Teen Equality Center, told GBH News that not having an ID was like being in “purgatory.”

“I couldn’t do anything without the ID, so I was just sitting in the halfway house, unable to work,” he said.

Hassan says his reentry coordinator tried to make sure he had an ID upon release, but it didn’t happen, partly because many of his documents are in his native New York.

Hassan says his parole officer got him a travel permit in early January to allow him to go to New York to retrieve his birth certificate. But when he made the trip, he said he was unable to obtain the certificate because his name was misspelled on the original document. Now he needs to obtain a school transcript to prove to New York officials the correct spelling of his name.

Hassan doesn’t think he’ll be able to get back to New York until March at the earliest. Until then, he’s left feeling frustrated that “systems are setting people up for failure.” After all, he had 33 years in prison to get records ready for his release.

He says he’s resilient but worries about others facing the same challenges.

“I’m going to persevere,” Hassan said. “Some of the people that I know will be released that may not fare so well.”

Maeve Lawler is an investigative reporter for GBH News.

Enhanced State ID Program, former prisoners