BY: The Exoneration Project

State Identification & the Reentry Process

A Marathon of Waiting

by Sam Steiber, MSW, LSW

When Eva suggested I write about the reentry process here in Illinois, I sifted through articles, academic papers, and studies. I found countless statistics[1], factoids[2], and laws[3], all of which support the argument that the reentry process here in Illinois – and the country – is needlessly complicated for most, and to use a non-clinical term, a real crazy-maker. The pieces I read contained a smattering of choice words that hung over every sentence like an angry, cartoon rain cloud: challenge, barrier, and deterrent, to name a few. Reentry began to sound like a synonym for obstacle.

Instead of adding to the slew of reentry articles that describe the broad scope of obstacles an exonerated person faces, I would like to highlight one facet of the reentry process here in Illinois: obtainment of a state I.D.  For exonorees, the reentry process is akin to rebuilding one’s life, similar to the way a person builds a house. An I.D. is the foundation of one’s house – without it, well, you don’t have a house.

To describe an Illinois State I.D. is to describe a piece of plastic, which measures approximately 3.5 by 2 inches in size. Many folks coming out of prison are provided with a prison discharge slip or an Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) identification card, but neither is sufficient to engage in the activities our society deems fundamental. You need a state I.D. to apply for a job and sign a lease. You need a state I.D. to open a bank account, vote, obtain health insurance (public or private), and apply for public benefits. So, while you won’t necessarily find yourself in legal trouble if you do not have an I.D., it’s an absolute necessity on basically every level.

As a social worker with the Exoneration Project, I’ve helped a few of our recent exonorees obtain their Illinois State identification cards. Since this multi-step process is time intensive, it is the first task we embark on when they are released. I have stood in admiration as these newly freed men engaged in a marathon of waiting— standing in long, snaking lines and sitting in fluorescent lit basement offices, hearing they’re missing mail, a social security card, or a birth certificate. I’ve watched as they rummaged through years of “property” – documents and other items accumulated while in prison – in order to find that hallowed social security card, or waited for their sibling to retrieve a birth certificate from the hospital where they were born. It takes documents to get a state I.D. in Illinois, and it takes documents to get those documents, and other documents to get those documents, and… you get the picture.

Which brings me to the topic of resiliency. Resilience is a term social workers use when describing individuals who overcome any manner of adversity. It’s a sort of buzz word. I’ve heard it used throughout my time in social work school, in the jobs I’ve held, in books and articles. For many social workers, resilience is the display of strength and determination. It is the ability to tolerate distress, disappointment, even humiliation. When a social worker praises a client’s resilience, they are praising a client who waits in those snaking lines, or sits under those bright, humming lights. However, when social workers praise a client’s resilience, perhaps without even realizing it, they may also be praising a client’s ability to tolerate injustice.

Praising a client’s resiliency, say, throughout the arduous task of obtaining a state I.D., can be validating, and validation is important. The waiting game is hard and incredibly annoying! Patience is difficult, but necessary! However, remarking on a client’s resiliency also grants social workers the ability to observe the unfolding of a dysfunctional system without critically considering the injustices it perpetuates. For instance, the harder it is for a person to get their state I.D., the harder it is to get a job. The harder it is to get a job, the more likely this person will turn to criminalized activity to make ends meet. There is no justice there. There can never be any justice there.

Maybe I’m in the social work minority, but I find anger to be a useful emotion. When channeled properly, anger becomes a kind of energy that propels a person forward – sometimes in a more calculated fashion, other times more stubbornly. Regardless, there is room for anger in waiting, just as there is room for patience. Perhaps that is resiliency at its finest, and it’s a good place to start.

Trying to get your Illinois State ID? Here are some practical steps and tips:

  1. Visit an IL Driver Services Facility.
  2. When applying for an IL State ID, here are the documents you’ll need:
    1. An original document with your written signature. This can be a credit card, court order, or more commonly, a social security card.
    2. An original document proving your date of birth. People usually use their birth certificate, but you can also use a passport or high school transcript.
    3. An original document proving your Social Security number. A Social Security card will do.
    4. An original document proving your Illinois residency, dated within 90 days of your State ID application. People often bring 1-2 pieces of snail mail, but not any old piece of mail will do. The Secretary of State only accepts mail from a city, state, or federal government agency. A Voter Registration Card is usually the simplest piece of mail to get. You can also use a utility bill, or a rental/lease agreement.

If you’re currently homeless and therefore cannot provide proof of address, you can submit a signed and notarized Homeless Status Certification Form (Form DSD A 230).

Keep in mind that you will not get your State ID card on the same day you apply. However, you should get a temporary paper ID that will suffice until your card arrives in the mail. For a complete list of acceptable identification documents, as well as all related fees, visit the Illinois Secretary of State’s website.

If you are still incarcerated, you can submit an application for a new or replacement social security card. This can be done by mail, free of charge. Another person can also submit this application on your behalf. In addition to the completed application, you must include two “evidence documents” that prove your age, identity, and citizenship (or immigration) status. There are no fees for a new or replacement social security card.

Finally, here in Cook County, you can apply for your birth certificate online. If you don’t have internet access, another person can apply for your birth certificate, so long as they have any identifying information included on your original certificate. There are fees associated with obtaining an original copy of your birth certificate. However, if you are homeless, a survivor of domestic abuse, or incarcerated (currently or within the last 90 days), you can complete and submit an application – by mail or in-person – free of charge.

[1] i.e. More than 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed approximately 1 year after they are freed (see link).

[2] i.e. According to the Poverty and Opportunity Profile by the Sentencing Project, the U.S. poverty rate would have dropped by 20% were it not for the trend of mass incarceration over the last few decades (see link).

[3] i.e. As of 2016, approximately 6.1 million people were prohibited from voting due to restrictive voting laws for those convicted of felony-level crimes (see link).