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Officials want inmate ID issue resolved

April 13, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

David Butler was released last month after serving nine years in the Maryland Correctional Institution for assault with intent to murder.

He had no job, no home, little money and faced the culture shock of re-entering society.

Among the obstacles he faced is one some say could easily be fixed: He had no ID.

Butler said he spent his first three nights in the Washington County Cold Weather Shelter because he did not have money for housing and did not have a photo identification, birth certificate, Social Security card or other paperwork required by assistance agencies.

"I got released without any of those things," Butler said.

The situation troubles agents in the Division of Parole and Probation, who say ID problems place an extra burden on released inmates during their most vulnerable time.

Members of the group overseeing crime-fighting efforts in Hagerstown's "hot spot" high-crime area have drafted a letter to Public Safety Secretary Stuart O. Simms asking that inmates be allowed to keep their prison ID cards or be given more assistance before they leave prison.

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This would help ease inmates' return to society and perhaps reduce the chances that ex-convicts will commit new crimes, advocates said.

"When you get out, you're kind of paranoid because you're used to being told what to eat and where to go It's hard enough carrying the ex-convict label," said Jackie McDonnell, a parole and probation agent in Washington County.

Prison ID cards are state property that are kept for an inmate's file, said David Tower, spokesman for the Maryland Division of Corrections.

Before prisoners are released, they have access to the forms needed to get duplicate Social Security cards and birth certificates, he said.

They also can get help filling out the forms and writing resumes, he said.

"It's basically the inmate's responsibility to do these things. It's not something we make them do," he said.

McDonnell said released inmates often do not know how to get the identification they need. The wait can take weeks in some cases.

Without help, many former inmates cannot afford housing. Butler said he could not check into the Dagmar Hotel without financial assistance.

Not having housing can make finding a job difficult, because employers usually want an applicant to provide an address. Butler said he has applied for dozens of jobs and had to list the parole and probation office as an address.

Not every ex-inmate blames the system.

Resources are available to inmates who use them, said Hagerstown resident Donald Oates, who was released in January after serving two years for violating parole.

Shortly before he was released, Oates said, he filled out a form and prison officials sent away for a copy of his birth certificate. When he got out, he applied for a Social Security card and got one within days, he said.

"There's a mentality that when you get locked up, they owe you something," he said. "They don't owe you anything."

Oates, 39, said the problem lies with the inmates, not the system.

McDonnell and others suggested that the prison system should place more emphasis on getting inmates the documents they need.

Staff Writer Laura Ernde contributed to this story.

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