FOR NEW PAROLEES hoping to stay out of prison for good, scoring public assistance is crucial. But few consider this obstacle: "You can't get ID in this society anymore if you don't have ID," says Amy Blank, a researcher at Rutgers University. "If you want a birth certificate, you need a driver's license. If you want a driver's license, you have to have a birth certificate and a Social Security card. And to get a Social Security card, you have to have a driver's license. It's this crazy cycle."
While studying a Philadelphia program that helped mentally ill ex-inmates transition back into the community, Blank found that virtually none of the 60 ex-cons she followed had IDs—the cards were either ditched during arrest or simply lost in the system. As a result, they had to wait weeks, sometimes months, for welfare checks, food stamps, and Medicaid benefits as they were bounced between government offices—a "brutalizing process" mentally ill parolees would be hard-pressed to negotiate alone, Blank says.
It's not getting easier: In May, provisions of the Real ID Act set stricter documentation requirements for state-issued IDs, and Medicaid enrollees must now prove identity and citizenship. Prison authorities could create IDs for ex-offenders, Blank says, but some are wary since inmates can be booked under false identities. As a result, "these people are going back to using drugs, living on the street, engaging in prostitution—crimes that are about their survival—because it just took too long."