The following text recounts the experience of a man who returned home after twenty years in prison.
He found that returning from prison wasn’t hard just because of the big things like finding work or signing a lease. He found that small things were just as challenging. Navigating his journey home required him to move through a maze of local government offices. He discovered that he needed identification before he could find work. He only had a small amount of gate money.
I thought his story was one of struggle, but he felt had been lucky, as not every prisoner benefited from the same welcome home that he received. He pointed to efforts by the local City to soften his return, to his appreciation for a church’s outreach program that gave him a support network to tap, and for a shelter that let him sleep for free.
He finished his sentence at the minimum security facility (“green clothes”) in the County adjacent to his home town.
He left with a few belongings and a small sum of gate money. The funds consisted of the balance on his commissary account and a stipend provided by the prison. In total, he left with a check for $56.
A contact drove him to the shelter where he spent his first night alone, scared, and generally unsure of what to do in the morning. To a certain extent, the check became more than money. It became the logical first step to establishing a new life. But the check also presented its own conundrum. He was “unbanked.” If he had a bank account, then he could have presented the check for deposit and received cash once it cleared. He had two options: go to a local bank or the check casher.
What he learned was that most banks charge people without an account to cash a check. For example, Bank of America charges eight dollars inside its branches. While BB&T will excuse a fee for very small items, it charges eight dollars to cash any check with a face value of more than fifty dollars. Some banks are more lenient, but he never did any comparison shopping. Besides, he worried that his appearance would make the staff of a bank branch uncomfortable.
He chose to go to the local check casher. He knew he would have to pay a fee. Still, the cost turned out to be less than he had expected. Check-cashing stores give a discount to cash government-issued checks. He paid three dollars. He now had $53.
He immediately walked to the nearest grocery store. He saw that a to-go sandwich cost five dollars. Stunning! A sandwich was 75 cents when he entered prison. He decided to try the dollar menu at McDonald’s. Filling and cheap – he could get fries and a burger for $2.17.
He had $50.83.
He wanted to find work, but first, he needed to have proper identification. Employers generally require two forms of identification as a condition of making a new hire: a Social Security or ITIN and a state-issued picture ID. You have neither. There are other options, of course: a military ID will suffice, as will a passport, and in some states, a person can use a picture ID from a college.
Some proactive prison administrators can take steps to lessen the problem of finding identification – most commonly by giving a returning inmate a prison ID.
In some states, returning citizens can get a if the prison completed the process of documenting a person’s legal status.
Nonetheless, that is not always the case. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly documented efforts by the US Department of Justice to compel states to provide state-issued IDs to newly released inmates. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynn championed this cause. Then again, merely providing an ID may not truly meet the needs of former inmates if employers, landlords, and other agencies refuse to accept them as valid documentation.
Back to Work – Your Social Security Card
He soon discovered that transportation would become another expense category. To get to the Social Security office, he had to buy bus fare. The best values are the 7-day pass ($12) and the 31-day pass ($40). He opted for the day pass ($2.50). He had $48.33.
The clerk at Social Security office said he would need a copy of his birth certificate or a passport to get a new Social Security card. He ruled out the latter option. He had never traveled internationally. Besides, even if he had a passport, it would have expired by now.
Could he find a copy of his birth certificate?
When he entered prison twenty years ago, his parents were still alive. Now they had passed. He doubted they would have given those documents to anyone. Moreover, getting in touch with them would have been impossible. He was honest about his social network. He only had a few friends before he was convicted. He alienated all but a few with his behavior. Besides, by now, he has lost touch with them. He needs a new copy of a birth certificate.
The path started at the Office of Vital Records inside the County Register of Deeds.
Luckily, the local shelter was only two blocks away from the OVR. The next day, he walked to the office. They had a record of his birth on file. However, the staff person said it would take four to six weeks to receive an ID.
She told him they could issue a new birth certificate for $24. He considered spending the additional $15 to get an expedited return, but he hesitated, as it would have meant he would have had to spend almost all of his remaining funds. He opted to accept the slower speed. One stroke of fortune was that the Register of Deeds did accept payment in cash. The clerk mentioned he could get an unofficial copy of a birth certificate today, but the fee will still be $24. He took the risk that employers would accept an unofficial copy.
He had breakfast and dinner at the shelter. He purchased a cheeseburger and fries at McDonald’s. After paying for the birth certificate and his meal, he had $21.83.
Hoping that things will be better with a state-issued ID, he set off the next morning to the local Department of Motor Vehicles. The local DMV does not issue IDs, so he had to travel to the nearest office that did. Thirty miles stood between him and that office. He bought a bus pass and another lunch, which left him with just $17.16 in his pocket.