This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news site covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.
When Amad was arrested in 2016, police at a Bronx precinct confiscated his driver’s license, birth certificate and Social Security card.
Six months later, when he was released from the Rikers Island jail complex with just his gloves and a bucket hat, Amad said he returned to the station house to ask for the documents back.
“They told me they didn’t have anything,” Amad, who didn’t want his whole name published, told New York Focus. “I only had my gloves and my name.”
The NYC Department of Corrections (DOC) does not keep data on how many people leave city jails without ID each year. A former DOC staffer and several advocates estimated that the number is at least in the hundreds.
Of the people who leave Rikers Island without ID, around 30% had left it with cops or correction workers, estimated Nicholas Posada, a Benefits Coordinator at the reentry nonprofit The Fortune Society.
In his 10 years working with the organization, Posada said, he has come across more than one hundred people whose ID had been lost by the NYPD.
“There could be a class action lawsuit against the property offices related to NYPD, with all the ID and materials they’ve lost,” he added.
A 2019 city report states that missing property was the most common allegation made by the Internal Affairs Bureau, NYPD’s internal watchdog, against police officers in 2017.
The loss of ID can have devastating consequences. It is required to apply for a job, cash a check, rent an apartment or seek for government benefits.
Discharging people from jail without ID “is like stripping people of all basic necessities,” said Jack Powers, an employee of Friends of Island Academy, a group that works with youth leaving Rikers. “How can you put someone on the sidewalk with nothing, when you have taken it, and expect them to retrieve the essentials?”
Living Without ID
Unable to rent an apartment, Amad entered a shelter after leaving Rikers, joining the ranks of more than 3,000 New Yorkers caught each year in the cycle of incarceration and homelessness.
He then began the long process of obtaining new documents.
“It’s really impossible to be honest,” he said. “You need ID to get your Social Security. Birth certificate, you need ID for that. So, how the f—k are you gonna do that? I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t claim any benefits, any help at all.”
Amad began by asking his bank and the public library for any documents proving his identity. But neither made documents that counted towards an official ID.
Instead, he said, he borrowed money to buy a fake ID — with his real info. He used the forged document to get a birth certificate, which he in turn used to get his Social Security card. Finally, with those documents, he acquired a new, official state ID.
The process lasted over two months, during which time Amad was homeless, unemployed and unable to apply for government benefits.
When he got his official ID, he said, “I got a job just like that.”
Amad’s experience is a common one. Posada, who has helped hundreds of people reentering society obtain identification said it usually takes around two months, because “you need ID to get ID.”
Government benefits like food stamps and Medicaid are suspended upon incarceration, and Medicaid can only be reactivated with ID.
While it is possible to re-apply for food stamps simply by sharing your Social Security number, those who must apply for the first time cannot do so without a valid ID. “A lot of our clients come from families that can’t afford to feed them,” Posada said. “[Benefits] make you a little more of a graceful guest.”
Lacking ID can even result in being sent back to jail, noted Chelsea Kraimer, a staff member at the re-entry nonprofit Getting Out Staying Out. People released on parole can be re-incarcerated for technical parole violations related to their lack of ID.
People released from Rikers during the COVID-19 pandemic without ID have faced especially difficult obstacles, advocates said, from accessing prescription medication to checking into hotels to isolate safely.
‘The Entity of Concern’
Why does the city lose people’s ID so often?
Reentry advocates pointed to a number of reasons: Police precincts may transfer wallets and other property between offices while their owners are in jail, then discard them if they aren’t picked up in sufficient time.
The DOC may lose track of belongings when they’re transferred between jails. And even if jails do keep the ID, DOC staff may neglect to provide instructions about where to retrieve it.
A DOC spokesperson said the agency is responsible strictly for the property that comes to them and suggested asking the NYPD about its property procedures. The NYPD press office countered that the DOC is “the entity of concern.”
A former DOC staffer who tried to reform the department’s ID procedures for years said that the problem stems in part from prioritizing in-jail behavior reform programs over reentry services.
“Something that’s very baked into our criminal justice system in general is [the idea] that people need all this really complicated character reform, but it’s their responsibility to do their benefits and get ID and make sure they have access to their prescriptions,” said the ex-staffer, who asked not to be named in order to avoid professional repercussions.
Another factor, the former staffer suggested, is the rapid churn through city jails: People cycle in and out of city jails to attend court and 34% of the city jail population stays for four days or fewer.
The turnover can make it difficult for agencies to work together quickly enough to provide ID, belongings, social services and medication upon release, said the former staffer.
Despite these obstacles, one partial solution could be implemented immediately and at little cost, advocates say: the city’s municipal ID program, IDNYC, could start accepting documentation from city jails.
State prisons print ID cards that can be used as proof of identity in order to apply for IDNYC. City jails print ID cards as well, but in what Julio Medina, Director of the re-entry non-profit Exodus Transitional Community, has called a “puzzling bureaucratic quirk,” IDNYC doesn’t accept them as proof of identity.
The former DOC staffer argued that there is no good reason for this discrepancy.
“There’s a false narrative that something magical happens in State Department of Corrections to verify that someone is not using an alias, and that thing does not happen and could not happen in a city jail,” the ex-staffer said. “The truth is that nothing happens to do that in state custody.”
In response to inquiries from New York Focus, press contacts at the city Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services, the city agencies that manage the ID program, referred to other kinds of documentation accepted but did not explain why documentation from city jails doesn’t count.
Beyond making it easier for people leaving city jails to apply for IDNYC, advocates propose a more direct solution: Just give them IDNYC upon release.
Faith Communities for Just Reentry, a coalition of religious organizations, launched in July to demand reform of the process.
The first item of the coalition’s policy platform is pushing for an executive order, issued by Mayor Bill de Blasio or Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks, to mandate that each person leaving Rikers Island be provided an IDNYC.
Alaska, Florida, Illinois, and Mississippi all require that every state resident leaving state prisons be discharged with an official state ID. Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Idaho have DMV machines within prisons to help people acquire official state IDs.
A pilot program to issue IDNYC on Rikers Island was established in 2016, but was shut down after just one month. The issues were logistical: DOC and HRA staff had difficulty moving the IDNYC pop-up site between jail facilities and establishing a secure and confidential WiFi network, a DOC spokesperson said.
‘Who are You, Bro?’
Susan Shah, a managing director at Trinity Church Wall Street, said that members of Faith Communities for Just Reentry had discussed their demands with the mayor’s staff, but de Blasio has not yet agreed to a meeting.
“We know that having an ID is the foundation of living one’s life as a fully recognized member of society. We cannot continue to erase the existence of so many of our brothers and sisters who have become involved in the justice system,” Shah said.
“I came home trying to be the man I wanted to be. I had a plan. But it got derailed,” said Rasheem Robinson, a construction worker who said he was released from Rikers without ID in 2017.
“If you don’t have proof of residency, citizenship and all that,” he added, “it’s like, ‘Who are you, bro?’”