A small, rectangular piece of plastic carried around in our wallets is essential to our daily lives. We’re asked to show it when we go to the doctor’s office, pick up prescriptions, travel somewhere, or apply for a job, food assistance and rent applications, among other things.

However, if you don’t have photo Identification, you are excluded from a lot of these services.

“I think the ID is really sometimes the first step to re-entering society, because once they have that, doors open,” said Grace Center Executive Director Laura Akers. “Whether it’s employment or housing, bank accounts, food stamps, library cards — it all is accessible. But without the ID it’s not. It’s unattainable.”

Between Nov. 1, 2018 and Dec. 20, 2019, the Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma helped 96 individuals obtain either a state-issued ID or Oklahoma driver’s license.

This service largely goes unnoticed by the general public, but for those who are homeless or facing extreme poverty, recently released from a state prison or county jail, or for those who are fleeing domestic violence situations, it is crucial for moving forward in their life.

Various situations can create barriers for individuals trying to obtain an ID. Individuals needing assistance at the Grace Center sometimes come from dire poverty situations where their ID has been lost or stolen, Akers said.

Others that have been evicted have occasionally had their documents thrown out by a landlord and some in dangerous situations have left everything behind. “We’ve heard from individuals that recently fled a domestic violence situation and when they fled, they didn’t think or even stop to consider if they needed their documents, including their ID,” Akers said.

It may have been six months or a year ago that inmates recently released from a state prison or county jail had their ID expire. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections, however, is not legally compelled to issue IDs for inmates during the pre-release process.

In fact, only a handful of states actually require that prisoners receive assistance in obtaining a state-issued ID before being released.

At the Broadway House, which functions as a local halfway house and substance abuse treatment center, director David Lowden said an estimated 50% of clients that have been previously incarcerated need assistance obtaining an ID.

“It’s very important, most places won’t hire them without an ID and, really, sometimes that’s one of the questions that we ask when we’re interviewing them is ‘Do you have a valid ID?’” Lowden said. “If a guy comes in here with no money and no ID, then it’s going to take a while. You’ve got to get them an ID before they can even get a job.”

Inmates in Oklahoma are given any original identification documents, such as social security cards or birth certificates, that are located in their legal files, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Oklahoma inmates are also allowed to keep their ODOC ID upon discharge, which can be used as a form of ID at some state organizations, such as the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

A state-issued ID or driver's license can be obtained with documents like birth certificates and social security cards. However, this still leaves one of the main obstacles unadressed; the cost.

“Most of the folks that come and seek this service are homeless and have no income or were recently released and have no income,” Akers said. “It is $25 for an ID in the state of Oklahoma, which doesn’t sound like very much money for the average person, but if you are homeless or you’re living in pretty extreme poverty, finding $25 can really be a stretch, if not impossible.”

In early November, at least 462 formerly incarcerated Oklahomans returned home in what was the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history. The mass commutation was the result of state legislation that made a bill reclassifying simple drug possession as a misdemeanor retroactive.

Several nonprofit organizations across the state worked to assist these individuals in obtaining an ID, and the Grace Center was among those that encountered individuals needing assistance with IDs very quickly, Akers said.

“When that happened in November, we saw some individuals that we had never met before that were new to us at the Grace Center and they did share with us that they were recently released from the state department of corrections and shared with us that it was because of that reason,” Akers said.

Homelessness remains high among formerly incarcerated individuals, as well. For those who don’t have immediate access to their birth certificate or social security card, it can sometimes be difficult and time consuming to request these documents, Akers said.

Depending on which state the documents are being requested from, Akers said it can take anywhere from five to seven days, to six to eight weeks to receive such documents in the mail. “If you’re homeless and you’re having to wait for your birth certificate to come in the mail and it’s a six week process, it’s really devastating,” she said.

Once the documents arrive, the Grace Center financially assists the individual in obtaining their ID. Like the Grace Center and other nonprofits around the state, Broadway House also assists many of its clients with obtaining an ID, Lowden said.

The Grace Center requires that individuals fill out an application, after which their income is taken into consideration, Akers said. However, most individuals seeking the service qualify and hopefully can use it as a step towards transitioning back into society, she said.

“Really our hope is that this assistance on an ID is that step in the right direction and helps open the door for what their goals are and moving forward with their plans to better their life,” Akers said.