Kenneth Nixon (right), director of outreach and community engagement with Safe and Just Michigan, speaks at a House Criminal Justice Committee hearing on March 21 in support of a package of bills that would codify a program helping people leaving prison get state IDs and driver’s licenses. He is joined by Cozine Welch, program coordinator at the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration. Provided by Safe and Just Michigan.

When Kenneth Nixon left prison in 2021, it took him six months to get his ID and driver’s license. Because he didn’t have his vital documents, like a birth certificate, he couldn’t open a bank account or get a job.

“I had no idea that I needed a birth certificate to get an ID. I had no idea that I needed an ID to get a social security card,” he said. “So, just learning where to start was frustrating all by itself — not knowing who to ask, not knowing where to look for this information, especially for someone coming out of prison. I’m just learning to use a cell phone.”

Kenneth Nixon, director of outreach and community engagement for Safe and Just Michigan, speaks at a House Criminal Justice Committee hearing on March 21 in support of legislation to codify a program helping people exiting prison get state IDs and driver’s licenses.

Nixon was freed from a life sentence after an investigation found that he did not receive a fair trial. Now, Nixon, the director of outreach and community engagement with Safe and Just Michigan, is advocating for speedier access to those necessary documents. He testified at a committee hearing this month in support of a package of bills that would codify an existing program that helps people leaving prison get their IDs and driver’s licenses.

The program, run by the Michigan Department of State and the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), launched in September 2020. It provides people exiting prison with a driver’s license or state ID upon parole. Bill sponsors and advocates say enshrining the program into law ensures it stays in place.

“We don’t want this program to disappear because of a future secretary of state or future director of the Department of Corrections deciding they no longer think it’s a necessary program. We wanted to codify it into state law to ensure that this program will remain, regardless of who’s in charge, what political party is in charge,” state Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) told the Free Press last week. 

Program ramps up since 2020 launch

State officials touted the program as a success and said the bills were a long time coming. Several formerly incarcerated people spoke in support of the bills at the committee hearing.

“The Department of Corrections helps secure a birth certificate for everybody incarcerated in the state of Michigan. We start that through the intake process,” said Kyle Kaminski, legislative liaison with the Michigan Department of Corrections. “Since 2020, we’ve secured a little over 35,000 individual birth certificates. As folks reach six months from their earliest release date — so the first potential date of parole — we … take that birth certificate, meet with the individual, have them complete an application for a state ID or a driver’s license.”

Kaminksi said the information is then submitted to the Department of State, which then sends the ID back to the MDOC so that it can go in the person’s file and be ready for them on the day of their release. The state covers the cost of documents, including birth certificates, IDs and licenses, said Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesperson. 

Before the program started in 2020, 400 IDs and driver’s licenses went out to people leaving prison each year. But since 2020, the Secretary of State’s office has issued 11,000, with hundreds more in the pipeline. Last year, 5,542 people were released from prison and 4,888 were eligible and received their state ID or driver’s license, according to the Michigan Department of State.

Those who were eligible but did not get them were usually unable to secure required documents such as birth certificates or social security cards. In that case, MDOC and the Secretary of State works with parole officers and community organizations to help people complete the process. The program is available at all MDOC state prisons, and to those who meet the program eligibility requirements.

“I could not help myself upon my release, because I didn’t have documents to show the government that I was the person that they had in custody for a decade and a half. It makes no sense. These bills would allow access to regular citizenship,” Nixon told lawmakers.

Jose Burgos, with the State Appellate Defender Office, said the vast majority of SADO clients are coming home with state IDs. Burgos was incarcerated as a juvenile and served 27 years in prison. When he came home, he didn’t have a birth certificate and for a year, he struggled to get a job or open a bank account.

“It’s very important that men and women coming home have these documents, so they can get the services that they need, so they can get jobs, so they can open a bank account and get back in the mainstream of society and do the things that they want to do,” he said.

More work still needed

Though the program has ramped up, there are still people left behind and room to improve the reentry process, advocates said.

“People that were born in other states typically have a difficult time getting their documents, people that were born sometimes in other countries, they have a hard time getting vital documents and that creates a problem,” Nixon said. “It creates a problem for MDOC, it creates a problem for the program.”

The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) in Detroit estimated that at least half of all individuals who walk through their doors are missing at least one of their vital documents.

“MDOC begins sourcing identification in the six month period prior to an individual’s release. However, despite testimony from Department leaders that nearly all individuals leaving incarceration from MDOC facilities are prepared, many impacted people and reentry services providers spend weeks and even months working to obtain these documents,” after release, said Olu Martins midwest regional program director for CEO in a statement.

The organization helps people obtain documents to become eligible to work, but there are a number of challenges, Martins said, including: not having proof of identity, the cost, not having a consistent address and the time it takes to get vital documents.

The bills, Nixon said, are common-sense legislation.

“When you walk out of prison and you don’t have documents, you are nobody. You do not exist in the state of Michigan,” he said.

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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