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After 2021 law, ADOC still working to get IDs for people leaving prison

On Monday and Thursday mornings, Community on the Rise, a nonprofit organization serving people in poverty, opens its doors to those who need help getting replacements for their government-issued identification, including birth certificates, Social Security cards and state IDs.

On those mornings, the line of people seeking assistance with the complicated and cumbersome process is usually out the door and along the downtown Birmingham sidewalk, said organization Executive Director Avery Rhodes.

“When people are without their identity documents, they are sort of frozen, invisible, unable to move forward to get a job, to bank or to apply for housing,” Rhodes recently told Alabama Daily News.

There are a variety of reasons someone may be without identification: it was stolen or misplaced in a move. Lost when a homeless person was displaced. The individual was recently incarcerated and left state custody with no documents. Many of the people Community on the Rise assists have been incarcerated at some point.

Getting replacement documents can be a complicated process — often getting one requires another form of ID — under the best of circumstances. For those with few resources, knowing how to navigate multiple agencies at local, state and federal levels is a barrier. Even with the help of knowledgeable volunteers, it can take months, Rhodes.

It’s complicated even for state agencies, as the Alabama Department of Corrections has recently found.

Rhodes estimates the organization helps about 800 to 900 individuals and families per year, including those needing identification for their children before they can get rental housing.

The need is greater than what the organization can provide with its limited manpower and resources — the group pays for many of the fees associated with the document hunt.

“It would be so beneficial for all of us if people had their IDs, had their needs met, and were able to go to work,” Rhodes said. “It seems shortsighted that it’s not something that’s focused on more.”

A complicated process

In a 2021 special session, lawmakers passed legislation requiring the Alabama Department of Corrections to start getting people forms of identification before they leave state custody.

“The Department of Corrections shall provide minimum documentation for identification, including a social security card and a birth certificate, necessary to obtain employment,” the law says. “The Department of Corrections, in conjunction with the Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency, shall assist an inmate in obtaining a non-driver identification card…”

In a statement to Alabama Daily News, an ADOC spokesperson said it is working to fulfill the requirements of the unfunded mandate. Birth certificates cost $15 and non-driver ID cards cost $31.50. No data on how many people have left ADOC with documents since the law was passed is available.

“The ADOC has partnered with the United States Social Security Administration to develop a memorandum of understanding to assist inmates in obtaining replacement Social Security Cards,” Kelly Betts told ADN “There are various factors outside the control of the ADOC that cause some inmates to release without receiving a replacement card such as, but not limited to, non-cooperation by the inmate, a release before the inmate’s end of sentence such as mandatory release or parole that falls outside the lead time required by the Social Security Administration.”

Obtaining birth certificates and state identification cards is a more complicated process, Betts said.

The department is developing a pilot program with ALEA to issue cards. The ADOC can assist indigent inmates with the $31.50 fee. However, those inmates who can pay the fee will be required to do so.

“The ADOC is also working with Ingram State Technical College on a grant that will provide some funding for the purchase of birth certificates from the Alabama Department of Public Health,” Betts said. “One ADOC facility has secured limited funding through an outside stakeholder to pay for birth certificates. The ADOC is exploring other ways to pay for birth certificates, either through grant funding or with the assistance of more outside stakeholders.”

Cam Ward, executive director of the Bureau of Pardons of Paroles, said his agency in recent years has put more emphasis on helping those leaving its supervision get identification.

“It’s very complicated because it’s a hodgepodge between agencies,” Ward said. “We’ve had a lot of nonprofits that have stepped up to help.”

Carla Crowder, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Justice said nonprofits and churches have stepped up to fill this need, but it shouldn’t be on them.

“We know through working with our own reentry clients that sometimes it takes a few weeks to secure these documents post release but sometimes it takes several months,” Crowder said. “This is wasted time that individuals could be supporting themselves and employers could have critical labor.

“At a time where the state is spending a billion dollars on a new prison there is clearly money available to provide these bare necessities to people leaving prison. It’s the smallest of efforts toward ensuring they don’t return.”

It’s also a workforce issue. As the state grapples with a low workforce participation rate, leaders are trying to get more adults into jobs.

Ed Castile, deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, has previously said the state is “turning over every rock” in search of potential workers.

“This might be a rock we need to look at a little deeper,” Castile said on Tuesday about the document process.

Appleseed’s Leah Nelson said sending people away from ADOC without identification is setting them up to fail.

“And given the workforce shortage, it sets employers up to fail too,” Nelson said. “This is literally a state of rocket scientists. We export rocket engines. If we want workers who are able to build those engines, and everything else this state relies on for economic growth, we need to take a little of the creative energy we have in such abundance and use it to equip re-entering Alabamians with IDs.”

The people Community on the Rise helps very much want jobs, Rhodes said.

One man returned to show the volunteers the used truck he bought after they helped him get the needed documents to get a job.

“People come in and say, ‘I have a job waiting, I just need ID,’” she said.

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