When “Raoul,” a 29-year-old parolee, left a New Jersey prison after six years, he felt he had stepped “into a frozen world.” He was paroled March 11, as coronavirus cases began to spike. Raoul was unable to access basic tools to restart his life, like a state ID or driver’s license. “If you don’t have an ID, you just can’t do anything,” he said. The state motor vehicle agency was closed until June 29. Raoul is awaiting necessary documents from his parole officer, who is also navigating pandemic-related closures. He has been unable to apply for a job or open a bank account. He has been forced to take risks that could put his freedom in jeopardy, including driving without a license for a food delivery app using a family member’s car. “I’ve just had to put myself into survival mode,” he told The Intercept.
Under pre-pandemic conditions, former inmates already faced steep barriers to accessing employment, housing, and necessary resources. People in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly poor, only to be rendered poorer through years of incarceration and the stigma beyond the prison gates. The pandemic has exacerbated this problem. “Without access to something as basic as an ID, you’re still inside while you’re outside,” said Anthony Dixon of the Parole Preparation Project, a New York-based advocacy and support organization. “And they could easily clear this hurdle when people are inside.” Ex-New Jersey inmates get “release IDs” that marks them as former prisoners. “I can’t use that to apply for jobs,” Raoul said. Dixon said one or two out of every five New York inmates leave prison without either a Social Security card or a birth certificate, despite the fact that the prison is supposed to ensure they have both.