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Bureau of Prisons: Opportunities Exist to Better Assist Incarcerated People with Obtaining ID Documents Prior to Release

GAO-23-105302 Published: Dec 07, 2022. Publicly Released: Dec 07, 2022.
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Fast Facts

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is required to help incarcerated people obtain ID documents, such as driver's licenses, before their release. ID documents may help them to secure housing or work when they reenter society.

The Bureau is collecting data on the number of people leaving prison with ID documents. But that data has often been incomplete or inconsistent, making it difficult for the Bureau to assess its efforts or to assist those who need their ID documents. The Bureau is also developing a federal ID card for incarcerated people.

We recommended that the Bureau take steps to improve its data collection efforts, and more.

Types of Documents Possessed by People Released from a Federal Bureau of Prisons Facility, 2018-2021

A stacked bar chart showing the percentage of people with and without social security cards, birth certificates, or photo IDs

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a process to assist federally incarcerated people with obtaining identification (ID) documents before their release. These include Social Security cards, birth certificates, and state-issued photo IDs (e.g. a driver's license). However, BOP officials noted that there are a number of inherent challenges in assisting people with getting IDs. For example, people may not be able to pay fees for an ID document, or may not be interested in obtaining them. BOP officials stated that the agency is developing a new federal ID card for incarcerated people, which they may be able to exchange for a state-issued photo ID upon release. While BOP has begun outreach to state motor vehicle departments about this new ID card, it has not identified or leveraged input from other stakeholders, such as public assistance providers or state health agencies, which could potentially accept the new ID card. By doing so, BOP could be better positioned to maximize people's use of the ID card.

BOP data show that about half the people released from 2018 through 2021 had at least one ID document in their possession when they left the BOP facility, which exceeds BOP's stated goal of 45 percent. Of those people released with ID documents, most had one ID, as shown below. Of the three ID documents, BOP released the highest percentage of people with Social Security cards.

Percentage and Number of People Released from Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Facilities with ID Documents in Their Possession, Calendar Years 2018 through 2021

Percentage and Number of People Released from Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Facilities with ID Documents in Their Possession, Calendar Years 2018 through 2021

BOP does not collect complete or consistent data on people's ID document status. For example, though its data system includes a data field to record the ID documents that a person possesses, it does not require all staff to consistently use this data field. BOP also has not assessed if it could collect better data and does not analyze data it does collect. Without requiring the collection of complete and consistent data, or analyzing such data, BOP may lack full information of the people in their custody who do not have ID documents or why they lack these documents. Having this greater understanding could allow BOP to better target its efforts in ID document assistance, thus providing more people with a chance at successful reentry.

The selected states—Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Minnesota, Montana and Virginia—used various approaches to assist incarcerated people in their states' prisons with obtaining ID documents. For example, some states provide mobile licensing services, have a motor vehicle office embedded at a correctional facility or have correctional staff trained to process photo IDs, or issue an ID at the correctional facility that people can exchange for a state-issued photo ID.

Why GAO Did This Study

Nearly 550,000 people were released from federal and state prisons in 2020. These people may face challenges reentering society—such as obtaining housing and employment—that may require ID documents to address. BOP, which is responsible for about 140,000 federally incarcerated people, is required to help these people obtain ID documents before release.

GAO was asked to report on BOP's processes to help incarcerated people obtain ID documents, and the number of those people. This report addresses (1) BOP's process to assist people, (2) the extent to which people are released from BOP facilities with ID documents, and (3) selected states' processes for assisting people.

GAO reviewed legislation and BOP and state policies and analyzed BOP data related to its efforts to assist people in obtaining ID documents. GAO also conducted non-generalizable interviews with officials from five BOP facilities and other offices, selected based on location and facility security levels, and eight formerly incarcerated people, selected by working with an advocacy organization. GAO also interviewed agency officials from a non-generalizable sample of six states that were selected based, in part, on their use of a variety of approaches.

Recommendations

GAO is making five recommendations, including that BOP leverage stakeholder input in developing a new ID card and take various steps to enhance its data collection and analysis efforts to better assist incarcerated people. BOP concurred with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Bureau of Prisons In developing its new federal ID card, the Director of BOP should identify key stakeholders and leverage their expertise to help ensure that BOP maximizes the potential uses of the ID card. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In December 2022, we reported on the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) efforts to assist incarcerated individuals with obtaining identification (ID) documents. We found that BOP had a process in place to provide this assistance, and was developing a new federal ID card for incarcerated people, which they may be able to exchange for a state-issued photo ID upon release. However, while BOP had begun outreach to state motor vehicle departments about accepting this new ID card, it had not identified or leveraged input from other stakeholders, such as public assistance providers or state health agencies, which could potentially accept the new ID card. Consequently, we recommended that in developing its new federal ID card, BOP should identify key stakeholders and leverage their expertise to help ensure that BOP maximizes the potential uses of the ID card. In response, as of September 2023, BOP officials stated they have conducted testing of its release ID card in three facilities, reached out to all 50 state motor vehicle departments and governor's offices, and signed agreements regarding acceptance of the ID in 11 states. In addition, BOP identified 8 key stakeholders such as the Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs. BOP officials stated that they conducted outreach to these agencies about accepting the ID card. To fully address this recommendation, BOP should provide information on how it has leveraged outreach to these other entities in its development of the release ID.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should ensure that BOP policy requires BOP facility staff to record complete and consistent data on whether or not incarcerated people possess each type of ID document. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In December 2022, we reported on the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) efforts to assist incarcerated individuals with obtaining identification (ID) documents. We found that in 2018, BOP began recording the ID document status of incarcerated people in its case management system, but some BOP data related to ID status were not collected in a complete or consistent way. For example, BOP did not contain the ID status for 10 percent of people released from 2018 through 2021. In addition, we found that BOP may not have consistent data on what it means when it reports that a person has an ID document. Consequently, we recommended that BOP should ensure that its policy requires BOP facility staff to record complete and consistent data on whether or not incarcerated people possess each type of ID document. In response, as of September 2023, BOP officials stated they are revising its policy (Program Statement on Unit Management and Inmate Program Review), which will require employees to record relevant data. To fully address this recommendation, BOP should finalize this new policy and provide it to us for review.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should examine the existing data fields to ensure that the appropriate information is being captured to clearly inform BOP of the number of people who have ID documents at home and choose not to have them sent to BOP facilities, as well as the reasons for not having ID documents. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In December 2022, we reported on the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) efforts to assist incarcerated individuals with obtaining identification (ID) documents. We found that in 2018, BOP began recording the ID document status of incarcerated people in its case management system, but it had not assessed what data would provide the most useful information in its ID assistance efforts. We identified several examples of potential data that BOP could consider to provide clearer and more detailed information. For example, BOP has a data field to capture information on why a person may not have a Social Security card or birth certificate. These could be defined reasons, such as refusal to obtain the document, or selection of an "other" free-form data entry field allowing staff to provide a description of the reason. However, a large number of these "other" reasons were recorded as "not specified" or "N/A", thus making it difficult to ascertain why these people may not have the ID document. As a result, we recommended that BOP examine the existing data fields to ensure that the appropriate information is being captured to clearly inform BOP of the number of people who have ID documents at home and choose not to have them sent to BOP facilities, as well as the reasons for not having ID documents. In response, as of September 2023, BOP officials stated that they have begun making changes to how such data are recorded in its case management system. Specifically, they stated that they began making changes to its system to ensure that the reasons for not having ID were being captured and noticed that additional modifications to data entry screens were needed. Also, according to BOP, data analysis conducted in June 2023 showed that the largest reason for not having ID was recorded as "other", but staff were not using the "other" field correctly, so BOP is planning to change how the field is used. BOP also reports making changes to relevant policy (Program Statement on Unit Management and Inmate Program Review). To fully address this recommendation, BOP should complete making changes to how the data are gathered to ensure that they know how many people have ID documents at home or do not have them at all, or the reasons for not having ID, communicate these changes to staff, and finalize development of its new policy.
Bureau of Prisons Once BOP collects complete and consistent ID data and examines its existing data fields, the Director of BOP should analyze data bureauwide to gain a better understanding of why people do not have certain ID documents and how the agency can take steps to better assist these people. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In December 2022, we reported on the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) efforts to assist incarcerated individuals with obtaining identification (ID) documents. We found that in 2018, BOP began recording the ID document status of incarcerated people in its case management system. However, it had not analyzed data on the number of people released with each type of ID document or the reasons why people do not have ID documents, though some of these data were available in BOP's data system. Thus, BOP did not have a complete understanding of why people do not have certain ID documents. Consequently, we recommended that once BOP collects complete and consistent ID data and examines its existing data fields, BOP should analyze data bureauwide to gain a better understanding of why people do not have certain ID documents and how the agency can take steps to better assist these people. In response, as of September 2023, BOP officials stated they have begun taking steps to collect complete and consistent ID data and examine its existing data fields (recommendations 2 and 3), and plan to conduct a biannual analysis of its ID data to better understand and mitigate the reasons why incarcerated individuals do not have certain ID documents. To fully address this recommendation, BOP will need to implement recommendations 2 and 3 and then analyze its data.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should make changes to the Statement of Work for RRCs to ensure that in future or renegotiated contracts, the RRCs are required to collect and regularly report data to BOP on the number of people obtaining ID documents while residing at RRCs. (Recommendation 5)
Open
In December 2022, we reported on the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) efforts to assist incarcerated individuals with obtaining identification (ID) documents. We found that in 2018, BOP began recording the ID document status of incarcerated people in its case management system. BOP requires residential reentry centers (RRCs) to assist residents released from BOP facilities to an RRC with obtaining ID documents and maintain data on the number who have ID documents. However, BOP does not collect ID-related data on people in their custody once they have transferred to RRCs. Consequently, we recommended BOP make changes to the Statement of Work for RRCs to ensure that in future or renegotiated contracts, the RRCs are required to collect and regularly report data to BOP on the number of people obtaining ID documents while residing at RRCs. In response, as of September 2023, BOP officials stated they are making revisions to its RRC Statement of Work that would address this recommendation. In addition, BOP officials stated that the agency has begun using Day Reporting Centers to augment the use of RRCs, and has revised the Statement of Work for these entities to require quarterly reporting of ID status for people using their services. To fully address this recommendation, BOP will need to finalize the revision of its RRC Statement of Work.

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Topics

Driver's licenseFederal prisonsIdentification cardsIdentification documentsPrisonersImprisonmentIntrusion detection systemsVital recordsCorrectional facilitiesMotor vehicles