Hardships for Re-Entering Citizens
Some people believe the reason for high recidivism rates, or re-incarceration after people are released, is because the prisoner hasn’t learned their lesson.  I was one of those people…until I heard about the prisoner identification issue.

Imagine that one day you were accused of a crime and spent years in prison.  When you are finally released, you find yourself standing on the street, with a $40 check, a badge that has an offender number on it that says Offender ID, and the clothes on your back.  Your family and friends have abandoned you because you are a criminal.  Your release address is your former home, but you are no longer welcome back there because of this crime.  Where would you go?  What would you do?

Sample of Offender Badge given upon Release in Washington State

Sample of Offender Badge given upon Release in Washington State

This is an issue many American offenders face when they are released from prison.  In Washington State, the first thing most of these men and women think of is how to cash the $40 check, so they have money for food and transportation. Note: prisoners are released to the county in which the crime was committed, not where they are from, and so they have to find a way back home, whether that be 1 mile or 1,000 miles.

However, when the prisoner arrives at a bank with their Department of Correction Offender Badge they were given, they will find out that it is not an official form of identification.  They cannot cash the check until they have official identification.

So depending on the time of day they are released…the next step would be to find and walk (remember, they have no money for bus fare) to the nearest Department of Licensing office to get an official form of identification.  They need an official state ID.   Upon arrival to the DOL, there is supposed to be an e-letter from the prison confirming the person’s identification electronically and thus enabling them to obtain a state ID.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the e-letter to not arrive right away.  But, for argument’s sake, say the e-letter was there.  The person would still not be able to get an ID because it costs $45 for a Washington State ID card.  Yet the person only has $40 in the form of a check, which the DOL will not accept as payment, and the released person was unable to cash.  It is a Catch 22.

After years of being in the prison system, ex-inmates have been taught  not to challenge any problems they face – to not ask questions.  They often simply accept that there is nothing more they can do to get their ID, or to cash their check.  They are defeated at the first barrier, and give up on trying to work on living a normal life.  These former offenders haven’t taken care of themselves or been taught to stand up against any rules or authority in sometimes many years due to being locked up, and so they do not know how to use resources around them, or how to solve problems like this.  Would you know?

Survival mode for former offenders in these situations starts to kick in after all options that they know of have been exhausted, and survival mode for a criminal means committing more crimes.  After all, what’s so bad about going back to jail or prison if it’s what you know, it’s familiar, and you have nothing out in the world?

The real problem here is that people who have offended and paid their debt to society are hardly given a chance to succeed out in the real world, starting with the identification issue.

Our Coalition has a solution.  Provide official identification for offenders when they leave – not an offender badge that has to be turned in for a real one and charged for.  Here is what to consider:

  • Approximately 20% of prisoners released re-offend simply because they do not start out on the right foot with an official form of identification.
  • It will cost approximately $34,000 to invest in a computer program that will allow prisoners to be given a state ID upon release from prison anywhere in Washington State.

The savings due to this one time investment would be astronomical, when you consider that the average cost of incarceration is $36,000 a year in Washington State as of 2010.  In 2010, 7746 inmates were released in Washington State.  Assuming only 1% of them reoffend and end up back in prison, that would equal approximately $2.7 million in spending per year in taxes paid.

Again, remember that an estimated 20% of prisoners re-offend simply because of a lack of identification.

In America, there is this notion of humanitarian aid.  The basic idea is that we keep our people from dying by providing basic necessities, such as food and shelter whenever possible.  After a person has been released from jail or prison, humanitarian aid no longer seems to apply – for without ID they can essentially do nothing legally.

As American citizens who have paid their debt, it is the reponsibility of our citizens to at lease ensure they can identify themselves so they can get a start back into the mainstream.  Former prisoners are already facing big odds of re-entry…and it is critically important to give them the best chance at healthy, crime-free survival.  The start of such equality should start at providing them with official identification as they walk out of the four walls of a prison.

This article was submitted by Brianna Hardcastle, a WWU student intern who looked into this when she realized what was going on with not giving people proper identification.