The Unfair Roadblock: Many people coming out of prison or jail are released without any official state identification other than a prison discharge slip or a department of corrections inmate card, neither of which are sufficient to obtain a job, place to live, public benefits, or necessities in the community. People who are incarcerated are very frequently separated from their “outside” possessions and even their “inside” possession as they are transferred within the system —birth certificates, social security cards, and state identification cards often disappear. The process of obtaining these documents upon release into the community, especially for those individuals who have been incarcerated for many years, can be daunting, and failure to do so quickly can doom their chances of successfully reintegrating into the community.

How to Remove the Roadblock: States should ensure that people released from prison are able to obtain proper state identification cards by requiring the state department of motor vehicles to provide identification to an individual with a state department of correction ID card. States should also create inter-agency agreements that ease the process for formerly incarcerated individuals to obtain state-issued identification.

This tool kit provides materials advocates can use to seek passage of a state law that allow individuals leaving prisons and jails to obtain state identification using department of correction-issued documentation, including:


In most states, individuals released from prison are not given any identification that would enable them to obtain a state-issued identification card, i.e. driver’s or non-driver’s license. Some states provide identification documents upon release but they are often not recognized as a sufficient source of proof of identity for most purposes. Without official state identification, people with criminal records are often unable to find employment, secure housing, or apply for public benefits.

In the United States, it is common practice for employers to require a newly hired employee to provide a copy of a state or federally issued identification. Even if a person without identification is fortunate enough to find work, the lack of a state ID can make it extremely difficult to cash paychecks or open a bank account. These barriers increase the likelihood that individuals with criminal records will fail in their attempts to reenter society and instead return to crime.

Ensuring that people released from prison are able to obtain proper state ID cards will remove some of the barriers to life-sustaining essentials. Research shows that the first few weeks after release are critical to successful reentry and preventing recidivism. Thus, it is crucial to make this transition as smooth as possible. Easing the process of obtaining identification is an inexpensive way for states to help former inmates make a successful transition back into society.

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The Legal Action Center’s National H.I.R.E. Network conducted a national survey to better understand what obstacles exist in each state for people newly released from prison to obtain proper identification and to identify models that could be implemented around the country.

We found that:

  • Although the Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) in twenty-two states accept some form of Department of Corrections (DOC) documentation as proof of identity, only six of them accept DOC documentation as primary proof of identification.

  • In twenty states, there are no inter-agency agreements between the DMV and the DOC, and the DMV does not accept any form of prison documentation as proof of identity.

  • In states where DOC-issued IDs are supposed to be accepted as proof of identification by the DMV, it is often not the case in practice. For example, although DOC documentation is officially recognized in New York, the DMV does not list any form of corrections documentation as an acceptable proof of identity.

  • Only two states, Illinois and Montana, currently have laws requiring the DMV to exchange identification issued by the DOC for state-issued ID. To see the Illinois statute, click here. To view the Montana statute, click here.
  • Three states initiated innovative programs:

    • California: In 2002, a parole division directive was initiated requiring that each inmate prior to release attend a Parole and Corrections program. The program focuses on issues such as housing, employment education and substance abuse. An employee from the DMV attends these meetings, takes photos and collects relevant identification from inmates so ID can be issued upon release. This card can then be used along with another acceptable proof of identity to meet DMV requirements for a driver or non-driver’s identification.

    • Minnesota: In collaboration with the DMV, the Minnesota DOC installed state approved photo ID equipment and linked to state DMV computers at several of its facilities. DMV employees can go to these facilities and process ID cards and driver’s license renewals for inmates before release.

    • Oregon: Thirty days before release an identification card similar to the state’s Smart Trail Card, is issued that provides immediate access to DOC funds and other benefits like food stamps and welfare. This program helps newly released inmates avoid the problems of cashing a check before he/she can obtain state ID. Additionally, DOC saves the cost of printing checks. As of April 2005, Oregon DOC release identification cards are an acceptable primary document to receive a state identification card.

      To view a comprehensive summary of the national survey, click here. To view the specific requirements for obtaining ID in each state, please click here.

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After reviewing the data compiled by the National H.I.R.E. Network, Western Michigan Legal Services, a legal services organization, developed five models that states might adopt to better address this issue, as well as a model for a check-cashing card. Click here to view model legislation developed by Western Michigan Legal Services.


If you are in a state where it is difficult for individuals leaving prisons or jails to obtain state identification, you can advocate for passage of a law that would allow department of correction ID’s to be exchanged for a state-issued ID or some other approach that facilitates inter-agency communication and cooperation to ensure inmates being released from prison are able to secure ID as soon as possible after returning to the community. We strongly recommend that the law be modeled after Montana’s or Illinois’ statutes or operate as a state mandated program like that in California in conjunction with a cash card like that issued by the Oregon DOC. Such a combination of initiatives could go a long way to ensuring successful reentry.

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If your state is considering legislation to help individuals obtain proper state ID cards immediately upon release from incarceration, alerting supportive groups and individuals and asking them to contact their local legislators to support the legislation is an effective way to bring about change. Click here for a model Action Alert you can shape for your specific needs and use to seek grass roots support.


Click here for a model Sample Letter you can send with the Action Alert to help your grass roots supporters write to their elected officials urging them to support legislation that eases the process of individuals leaving prisons and jails in obtaining official state identification. Once again, you can shape this Sample Letter to meet your specific needs.

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