Nearly four years ago state lawmakers passed a law requiring the state prison system to help get personal identification cards to outgoing inmates before they are released. The Legislature declared at the time that having a current ID was “necessary for successful reentry into society.”

Yet about half of all convicts released from the correctional system in recent years still had no valid identification cards, and the Department of Public Safety is only now finalizing a memorandum of agreement with the city to help get state IDs for outgoing inmates.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and other activists have argued for years the state must do more to help former prisoners to reintegrate after they are released, and expressed  frustration this year that things are moving so slowly.

“PSD is required to provide comprehensive reentry and support services, but has failed to meet its obligations,” the ACLU said in written testimony to lawmakers on March 19. It specifically cited the example of the still-unmet ID card mandate.

Halawa Correctional Facility inmates in module during tour 2019.
A Halawa Correctional Facility inmate in 2019. Prison officials acknowledge about half of all inmates who were released last year still did not have valid identification, making it difficult for them to find work or seek housing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“These documents are necessary to secure housing and employment, to enroll in many benefit programs, and to fill prescriptions for medication,” the ACLU wrote.

The organization cited data from the department showing that from Nov. 30, 2018 to Oct. 30, 2019, 56% of the people exiting state jails and 46% who left prison departed without state identification cards.

Department of Public Safety Deputy Director for Corrections Tommy Johnson said in a written response to questions that about half of all inmates released last year still did not have the ID cards. But he said he made the issue a priority when he was named deputy last November.

The department signed a memorandum of agreement with the state Department of Transportation on Jan. 19, and an MOA with the city Department of Customer Service is being reviewed by the city in an effort to get state ID cards to inmates before they leave, Johnson said.

“Those things need to be in place first before we start issuing ID cards,” Johnson told lawmakers.

Johnson acknowledged that “not having some form of official identification causes challenges in everyday life for anyone. This is particularly true for offenders reentering the community.”

“I determined that the MOA’s were long overdue and took a hands-on approach to prioritize the completion of this task,” Johnson wrote.

DeMont Conner Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Identification for convicts may seem mundane, but former inmate DeMont Conner said it can be a make-or-break issue. “Without it you cannot function in society, because they need to know who you are, especially if you’re going to travel,” he said.

The Hawaii Paroling Authority generally refuses to parole inmates unless they have some place to go and some sort of support. However, some inmates “max out,” meaning they serve their entire sentences, and the state cannot hold them any longer.

“If you’re maxing out and you don’t have any identification and no place to stay, you’re going to be homeless,” Conner said. “You’re going to be on the beach, you’re going to be under the bridge, that’s what’s going to happen to you. You’ve got no place to go.”

The ACLU, meanwhile, is urging the state to expand transition programs for inmates who are leaving prison, and state lawmakers are advancing a resolution urging the prison system to do so.

“Prioritizing reentry planning is not only humane — it makes our communities safer,” the ACLU said in written testimony submitted to lawmakers earlier this month. “Ninety-five percent of people incarcerated in state prisons will eventually be released.”

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