A program at San Quentin State Prison helps men get their birth certificates before they parole.
There’s a stark reality about parolees who leave prison without proper identification. One of those is that employers cannot hire them legally to work. Other collateral consequences include impediments to finding housing, obtaining a driver’s license and Social Security card, opening a bank account, getting credit and enrolling in school.
The Genesis Project is a stop-gap to help solve this well-known dilemma that can lead to increased recidivism.
“This has been a dream of mine,” said Helaine “Lainy” Helnitzer, who helps to run The Genesis Project. She said people paroling with the lack of identification is a problem. “I got the warden to agree and Sam” (Lt. Sam Robinson, the prison’s public information officer), she said.
To obtain proper identification, a birth certificate is needed. A formerly incarcerated person who attempts to acquire this document once on parole is at a disadvantage, Helnitzer said. This is because it takes about four to six weeks under ideal circumstances.
An Aug. 15, 2021 California Reentry Program (CRP) letter sent to the men who participated in the first workshop states, in part: “Our success will be determined by the data we will obtain.”
Sixteen inmates signed up to attend the first two-hour workshop in mid-August. There, they filled out applications to receive their birth certificates. Two correctional counselors came in to notarize the applications.
“This is a study and a pilot program,” said Helnitzer. “We got funding. The notary and application is paid by the fund.”
Helnitzer explained the importance of obtaining proper identification before parole. “We’re collecting data,” she said to the men. “You might be paving the way for a huge policy program.”
would have the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Department of Motor Vehicles work together to provide inmates with identification prior to leaving prison. Helnitzer and Judith Mata said it could take too long, even if passed.
“We’re a nonprofit,” said Mata, who also works with CRP. “We think everybody should come out with an ID and Social Security card.”
After the men signed up, those with the earliest release dates were sent a half-sheet questionnaire. It’s used to find out which state and county they were born in. That information is returned to the San Quentin Community Resource Manager’s office.
Before the men attended the workshop, Helnitzer and Mata used the men’s information to download various state and county birth certificate applications. This is because there is no uniform application document in the United States.
Later, the men were sent a pass to attend a workshop where they were given instructions, an application, and had their questions answered about the process.
Mata explained to the men that they are allowed to have their birth certificate in prison, and said it “is your right” to have ID.
“Please let us know when the birth certificates have arrived,” the CRP letter states. Some of the first birth certificates were received in early October by participants.
“If you come out (of prison) without ID, you’re already set back,” said Mata. “You can’t be gainfully employed without ID and a Social Security card.”
Note: The author of this article participated in The Genesis Project and successfully obtained his birth certificate.