One Man's First Days of Freedom After Twenty Years of Incarceration; Struggles to Get Identification and Save Money


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.  

His Story

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.

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Picture of card
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prisoner being released from handcuffs

Other Gaps

Prescription Drugs: Prison life came with medical care, and while it may have been scant in many ways, he did have access to prescription drugs. He left prison with a 7-day supply of meds (some states give returnees a 30-day supply). Now, he knows medication will become a pressing issue, and quickly. He asks himself, “How will I get my meds for my blood pressure? How will I find the things I need to control my diabetes?” Again, he benefited from wisdom he found at the shelter. He learned that a local free health care clinic provides care, even to a person without Medicaid or a standard ACA insurance policy.

The next morning, he bought another bus pass ($2.50) and made his way to the clinic. He had breakfast in the shelter, but he stopped for another visit to the dollar menu. He was down to his last $12.17.

Even simple things, like having clean clothes and basic toiletries, can make a difference. Once again, he had some luck. He had returned to a progressive city, where government programs exist to provide release boxes to people returning from incarceration. The boxes have basic toiletries, a bus pass, and gift cards to buy basic clothing needs at a local discount store. Nonetheless, only a handful of cities in his state have established these kinds of programs. For very little public expense, a lot of good could be accomplished if more places took these steps.

Some public policy options

Even in today’s economy, many formerly incarcerated individuals encounter challenges when they seek work. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate among all formerly incarcerated individuals was 27 percent in 2008 – more than five times the national average. PPI’s research showed that among those recently released, unemployment rates were even higher.

Evidence suggests that the challenges extend beyond employment. Formerly incarcerated individuals (and their support networks) must work diligently to find housing, as well. Not surprisingly, many become derailed. Rates of death due to overdose, stress-related illness, homicide, and suicide all spike during this period. I believe that few people imaging that formerly incarcerated individuals find it easy to adjust to life on the “outside.” I see points of light already - witness efforts like Pennsyvania's Clean Slate Law and Congress' bipartisan First Step Act. It is hard not to see signs that the country is moving in a new direction, toward fairness and forgiveness and away from overzealous punishment. I recognize that viewpoints vary greatly across different areas, with a particular gap between well-resourced metropolitan areas and struggling rural communities. This person’s story shows how even the small things present challenges, many of which are purely administrative.

We should budget to house people in shelters. Many states now charge a fee to stay overnight in a shelter. A well-known shelter in Los Angeles charges $7 per night. Public shelters in Hawaii charge families $90 per month. An advice blog for homeless people suggests that most shelters now charge between five and ten dollars per night. Shelters do have expenses. The answer is not to ask these institutions, many of which operate on a shoestring budget of grant money, gifts-in-kind, and volunteerism, to shoulder the burden. Our justice system should allocate funds to meet their needs.

We should smoothe the path to getting identification. If all prisons made it a policy to provide a state-issued ID to inmates before they leave, we could rapidly reduce the amount of work people need to accomplish once they get out. Without ID, we make it that much harder for people to find housing and get work. Are not those the things we want people to achieve? 

We should address gate money. I have a concern for how our current system works. Putting funds on a check automatically forces people to bear the cost of using a check casher, but putting funds on a typical release card is usually worse. Those cards drain funds, be it through ATM fees, per transaction fees, and even for account closure fees. Had it been the case that the individual profiled above uses a release card, he would have run out of funds. I beleve that non-profit agencies should help people find bank accounts. Doing that will require changes at the local, state, and federal level. Regulation makes it tough for people to receive a debit card inside a shelter or in any institutional setting, as most banks have fraud triggers in place to prevent any place from receiving multiple account applications. Some even prevent college students from getting cards inside dormitories. Most of these hurdles could be overcome, but again, it will only occur if banks get permission from their regulators to do so. Short of that, we can expect to continue to see people spend a significant share of their gate money on the mere cost of transacting.

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Adam Rust has worked to defend consumers against harmful financial practices since 2005. He has written extensively about overdraft fees, payday lending, credit insurance, student loans, prepaid debit cards, high-cost installment loans, and subprime mortgage lending. The New York Times interviewed him when it reported on the CFPB's rulemaking on prepaid debit cards; subsequently, his research paper framed the debate on consumer protections.

He serves on the Board of the US Faster Payments Council. He is Director of Research at Reinvestment Partners in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of BankTalk. He is the author of "This is My Home: Challenges and Opportunities of Manufactured Housing" and has testified to Congress on how to redress some of the problems with manufactured housing. See more on his LinkedIn profile.