By Helaine Melnitzer, Contributor
Most of us never bother to reflect upon the value of having an identification card or birth certificate. We board planes, open bank accounts, and apply for a job or general assistance. But the majority of California prison inmates who have completed their sentence and are ready to re-enter society are released with nothing but the same prison card used during their years of custody to identify themselves to staff.
Not one state prison in California promotes and subsidizes birth certificates for inmates upon release. Yet this is the most critical paper they would need to begin a new chapter in their lives. Instead, they are rendered virtually stateless and have to rely on a stigmatized and a socially unacceptable form of ID to reintroduce them into the work force. They then face tremendous challenges gaining employment and are more likely to re-offend and land themselves, once again, in prison.
Statewide rates of recidivism range from about 31- 70%, while the rates for those placed in jobs shortly after their release range from 3-8%. In other words, for newly released inmates, time is of the essence. While parolees may apply for their birth certificate or a state ID, it can take upwards of three months to obtain one. And while employers are legally prohibited from asking about one’s conviction history before making a job offer, seeking employment with a prison ID is tantamount to publicly branding oneself an “ex-felon,” allowing employers to covertly deny them the job, and indirectly undermining the Fair Change Act and the advocacy of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions.
Having worked with more than 1,000 inmates over the last 10 years in rehabilitation programs, I have seen many of them do far more than the minimum court ordered sentence. I have seen them work countless hours, invested in self-help programs that direct them to look into their prior criminal tendencies. The goal of rehabilitation is to arrive at a place where these men are unrecognizable from the men that entered the gates 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years ago.
And while the scales of equality are already unbalanced and stacked against those who have been incarcerated when they get out, without their birth certificates and proper ID, they are now tempted with illegal income jobs or the alternative of working in a degrading, below-minimum wage environment, being paid under the table. This makes a mockery of their years of rehabilitative programming.
In March of 2020, when COVID consumed the 35 prisons in the California Department of Corrections, all volunteer programs in San Quentin came to an abrupt halt. But surprisingly, one project began to bloom: The Genesis Project. This is an idea which had been in the making for the better part of a decade. My intention was to expedite the process for each and every inmate, while imprisoned, to receive their birth certificate. I wanted them to walk out of prison as legitimate citizens and, ultimately, to be indistinguishable from other applicants vying for employment. I wanted to give them a chance to make their freedom a redemptive experience. But after years of promoting the importance of supplying this document to inmates prior to release, the frustrating lack of results led me to abandon the program.
Then, in February of 2021, a particularly dire PBS segment aired that explored the difficulty paroled people face in obtaining a valid ID. The title of the segment read, “For men and women coming out of prison every year, one of the first steps to re-entering society can be one of the most difficult: simply getting a valid ID.” Seeing this on national television was the catalyst for me to dust off the old proposal and reintroduce it to the San Quentin administration once again. And this time, it worked.
Blessed with an incredible team of a re-entry mentor (Judith Tata of CRP), financial backers (Santhosh Daniel of Trevor TCR) and the approval and support of the San Quentin Warden (Ron Broomfield), the path was laid out and we were given the green light. Even before the prison officially opened after being locked down for 15 months, we were able to get to work in the San Quentin housing units, opening the doors to classes of 25 men at a time.
We helped them fill out their applications and subsidized the entire application fee and notary expenses, which range from $40 to $55. While this seems like a small sum, the average prisoner earns roughly $.40 an hour, which is why so few apply.
Later, we sent out forms to collect data from those who had received their birth certificate and saw that what began as a pilot study has proven itself beyond our expectations. We received dozens of letters from the men expressing their gratitude. Many responded that this was the first time they’d ever seen official documentation of their birth. One wrote that he would treasure the piece of paper as he moves on to “building a positive life.” Another said that holding it in his hands gave him a “sense of identity and empowerment.”
And another had this to say: “I wept when I received my birth certificate. Why? It had my mother’s signature on it. That was the closest I had felt to her since her tragic murder when I was a small child. Something tangible. A real connection to my dear mother. They never caught the guy. Thank you so very much for this gift. It was priceless.”
The Genesis Project has now become The Genesis Program. It promises each San Quentin inmate the chance to leave the prison walls and enter the free world as a lawful human, no longer anchored to his past and unbranded by the crime he has worn for years in his prison blues. While they are well-situated to find jobs quickly and put their years of incarceration behind them, many of the men who have been released and received their birth certificates find time to engage in charitable work, as the living memory of their criminal acts has become their personal inspiration to a dedicated lifetime of making amends.
Helaine Melnitzer has volunteered in San Quentin State Prison for ten years. She is currently an Executive Advisor for rehabilitative and re-entry programs and a local Jefferson Award recipient for the culinary program Quentin Cooks.
Since Sept 2021, the Genesis Project, partnering with California Reentry Program, has helped 128 inmates receive their birth certificates.
If you would like to help us keep this program alive, please consider lending your support by sponsoring a person in prison.
You can donate online at https://www.ca-reentry.org/ donate or send a check to ‘California Reentry Program, P.O. Box 483, San Quentin, CA 94964’. Please specify that your contribution is for the Genesis Project. Thank you for your support.