GRAND RAPIDS -- Jeff Lowery figured it was going to be a tough road as he left state prison in late February, hoping to find work and housing. But without proper identification, he feared it would be impossible:
“There is nothing you can do. It's absolutely horrible.”
Six months before was discharged, Lowery said, he had paid $26 to obtain a copy of his birth certificate. He said he was told he would get a Social Security card before he left prison as well.
He got neither.
“I was given a tube of toothpaste, a tooth brush, a razor, a pair of socks, a voucher for $45 for the Salvation Army and directions” to a Grand Rapids homeless shelter, Lowery said.
Three weeks after he left prison, Lowery, 42, was still waiting for the identification he would need to get a job.
State law hasn’t fixed ID problem, experts say
In 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation aimed at solving this problem. It requires the Michigan Department of Corrections to provide exiting prisoners with a prisoner identification card that the Department of State must accept as a secondary document in obtaining a state identification card or driver's license.
But experts say some ex-prisoners still have trouble getting the primary identification – typically a driver's license or state ID – that is vital to obtaining employment, housing and various benefits.
To get a state ID or a driver’s license, the Michigan Secretary of State requires a Social Security card or proof of a valid Social Security number, birth certificate, passport or proof of legal permanent residence, at least one document showing proof of identity and two documents to prove Michigan residency.
“This should be done prior to release,” said Rick Fairley of the Lansing-based Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and director of a program that helps ex-prisoners with housing, transportation and obtaining identification.
Fairley credits the DOC with significant strides in recent years toward getting prisoners identification they need t before they leave. Five years ago, he said, “nobody was coming out with anything.”
But Fairley said that any who still depart with only prison ID are especially vulnerable to return to habits that landed them in prison in the first place.
“The first three weeks being out is when they are most vulnerable to relapse. That's what makes this so critical.”
Thousands of inmates released each year
Some 9,000 individuals exit Michigan prisons each year, with an unknown number leaving with only their prisoner ID. Approximately 31 percent are back in prison in three years, down from 48 percent 10 years ago. It costs about $34,000 a year to house a prisoner.
Russell Marlan, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the system has come a long way from a decade ago.
“Ten years ago, we heard stories that when a person came into prison it was not uncommon for our folks to throw (identification) away,” he said. “We recognize the importance of that now.”
Marlan said DOC officials now work with prisoners months before their release to obtain identification including a Social Security card and birth certificate.
“There are strong efforts to get them that before they leave,” he said.
Marlan said there is no data on what percentage have identification other than prisoner ID when they leave. He conceded it is less than 100 percent.
“We can always get better. Ideally, we'd like to see everybody leave with a valid ID.”
Marlan said some cases can be especially tricky, citing prisoners convicted by false names that don't match up with their actual identify. Others may not know where they were born.
Department says parolee didn’t pay
With respect to ex-prisoner Lowery, Marlan said DOC records indicate that Lowery did not pay for identification and that he told prison officials he did not need help obtaining ID. He stated that Lowery also was given a money order to obtain identification.
Lowery, however, was adamant that he did, in fact, pay for the certificate, out of his meager prison spending account.
A Grand Rapids identity specialist recalled a man released from prison a year ago after 27 years behind bars. He still has no state ID, birth certificate or Social Security card.
“They released him with nothing,” said Mark Howard, who is employed by Degage Ministries, a nonprofit agency that supports the homeless and disadvantaged, to assist individuals in procuring identification.
“He was delivered by a midwife in Mississippi. We can't find school records. We can't find a birth certificate.”
He, too, credits the DOC with improvement on the ID front. But he believes it should be mandatory the department coordinate with the Secretary of State to ensure that all prisoners have state ID when they leave.
“It's not that difficult. Instead of making it difficult for them to find employment, to find housing, we should be making it easier. We don't don't want these people to go back.”
According to analysis by the Michigan Bar Journal, two states, Illinois and Montana, have laws requiring the department of motor vehicles to exchange prison identification for state identification.
ID barrier complicates hiring push
At Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, CEO Fred Keller is pushing an initiative to encourage 30 West Michigan organizations to hire two felons for two years in a row.
Keller said it is challenging enough to convince employers to hire a felon. But when that individual has no identification other than a prison card, he has virtually no chance.
“That causes a lot of folks to give up. Sometimes, they don't know where to go for birth certificates or anything else.”
Former prisoner Lowery was lucky.
He ended up at Guiding Light Mission, where intake case manager Tony Duebler realized how vital it was to get him a state ID.
“There is nothing he can do even if he is motivated and he wants to get employed. It ain't going to happen,” Duebler said.
Duebler sat down with Lowery and contacted officials in Cook County, Ill., where Lowery was born. He arranged for expedited processing of a copy of his birth certificate and to have it sent by express mail. The mission paid the $70 cost.
He had it within days.
With that and additional proof of his identity, Lowery was told by Secretary of State officials he would have to wait two to four weeks for his state ID.
Lowery said he has two children in foster care and is determined to find employment so he can provide a home for them.
“I need to go to work to acquire a home. It's the only priority next to God,” he said.
Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.