When the 29-year-old parolee walked out of the New Jersey state prison where he had been incarcerated for the last six years, he felt that he had stepped “into a frozen world.” He was released on parole on March 11, as coronavirus cases in the state began to spike, just 10 days before Gov. Phil Murphy implemented a statewide stay-at-home order.
If the last three months of pandemic lockdowns have felt for many like time in suspension, for the man I will call Raoul, they have been an excruciating state of limbo: freed from the horrors of incarceration but unable to access the basic tools with which 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,” said Raoul, who asked me not to use his real name so he could speak frankly about his position as a parolee without fear of retribution from the state.
The offices of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission were closed until the end of June. And Raoul is waiting on 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. In order to get by, he has been forced to take risks that could again put his freedom in jeopardy — including driving without a license for a food delivery app by using a family member’s account and car. “I’ve just had to put myself into survival mode,” he told me.
The risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic to prison populations cannot be overstated. The virus introduced a new urgency to already crucial efforts toward mass decarceration in this country; for the most part, governors and state prison systems responded by permitting vastly insufficient number of releases. But the story of how mass incarceration — the terrible ills of which have been put in stark relief by the coronavirus — continues beyond the prison walls. We can’t overlook what happens when people are released.
Under pre-pandemic conditions, formerly incarcerated people already faced steep barriers to accessing employment, housing, and necessary material resources. People who enter the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly poor, only to be rendered poorer still though years of incarceration and the added stigma that follows a person beyond the prison gates. As with so many social brutalities, the pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Former prisoners reenter a world of soaring unemployment and shuttered social service offices. For those in Raoul’s position, even the first step toward getting life on track — getting an ID — is thwarted.
“Without access to something as basic as an ID, you’re still inside while you’re outside,” said Anthony Dixon, director of community engagement at the Parole Preparation Project, a New York-based advocacy and direct support organization. “And they could easily clear this hurdle when people are inside.” Dixon stressed that state prisons should certainly have the capacity, and all the necessary information, to provide parolees with non-driver IDs before they are released. Some states like Louisiana already do this (though the system there falls short, too, since much of the state’s incarcerated population is overseen by the equivalent of county jails, where there is no such service).
“Without access to something as basic as an ID, you’re still inside while you’re outside.”
In New Jersey, as in New York, individuals leaving state prison are provided a “release ID,” which serves as legal identification but marks the person as a former prisoner. “I can’t use that to apply for jobs,” Raoul told me. (Tony Ciavolella, a spokesperson for the New Jersey State Parole Board, told me that “the State is fully cognizant of how important it is for parolees to obtain the appropriate identification which will help them as they navigate through society.”)
Motor Vehicle Commission offices reopened in New Jersey on June 29. But like many formerly incarcerated people, Raoul currently lacks the documentation needed to obtain a state ID or driver’s license. He cannot obtain a copy of his birth certificate from his native Colombia, where he left to seek asylum in the U.S. at age 19, having faced deadly persecution. He is waiting to receive other alternative documents from his parole officer, who he said has been working from home. Dixon told me that one or two out of every five incarcerated people he has worked with in New York leave prison without either a Social Security card or a birth certificate, despite the fact that the prison is supposed to ensure that they have both.
Meanwhile, the last three months have presented challenge after challenge for Raoul: His family held a fundraiser so he would be able to pay his rent, but he was soon kicked out of an apartment when the property owner learned that he was a parolee. Despite fears around the virus spreading, Raoul stayed with a friend and then his sister, who has since helped him find a new place. Through his work as an advocate for juvenile justice, Raoul has found a small network of support. “Thanks to that, rent will be paid this month,” he said. “If I did not have my family and friends, I don’t know what I would do. But it is a weird feeling to have to rely on people like this.”
He told me that the only useful advice his parole officer has given him is information about nearby food banks, which he has been relying on to eat. He spent time walking around his Elizabeth, New Jersey, neighborhood to seek paid odd-jobs like lawn mowing, with little success. An employment agency told him that he will need a state ID before applying for jobs.
That’s when Raoul took the risk and turned to the ride-sharing app. He started driving for Uber Eats without a license. One night, he was pulled over by a cop in Newark. “I just started crying,” he told me. In a rare stroke of good fortune, he explained his situation to the officer, who let him go. Ever since, he’s been largely doing bike deliveries instead but still using an account that isn’t his.
Three weeks ago, Raoul was hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia. While he tested negative for Covid-19, his breathing, he said, continues to feel constricted. He has no medical insurance and owes $800 he cannot pay.
Raoul’s situation is not unique. It exemplifies the way seemingly minor bureaucratic obstacles, which the state could easily ameliorate, make life unlivable for those who have already been denied their freedom and dignity by the carceral system. Advocates and organizations around the country have long been dedicated to supporting formerly incarcerated people while the state refuses to; the pandemic has only stymied their efforts further. “Before the shutdowns, we were making headway in streamlining the process to get people driver’s licenses, which they need,” said Kelly Orians, co-director of New Orleans-based nonprofit the First 72+, which works with individuals transitioning to life after prison. “When the Covid crisis hit, so much of the progress we made was lost.” As Orians put it, “People are coming out, and everything seems hopeless.”
Government offices are reopening, but as coronavirus cases continue to soar in the failed state that is contemporary America, shutdowns could well return. In the meantime, backlogs to process applications for IDs are now vast and the need for housing, food, and basic resources for survival is skyrocketing.
Even while the “frozen world” into which Raoul walked begins to thaw, the landscape beneath, which was always harsh, is ever more treacherous for poor, marginalized people of color who have been subjected to carceral so-called justice. The ground needs razing; the struggle to ensure that everyone in a position like Raoul’s can walk truly free will continue long after this interminable pandemic.