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Sarasota Jail Hopes Handing Out IDs Will Boost Ex-Inmates' Success On The Outside

Jun 7, 2019

Going to jail can mean losing everything, including your identification card. Traffic tickets and fines can pile up, and bureaucracy can be tough to navigate. And sometimes, people can’t get jobs, or housing, and end up back in jail.

The Sarasota County Jail has a new program that helps inmates get proper identification before they are released. The hope is that these basic steps will cut down on repeat jail terms.

Wearing an orange jumpsuit, Gregory Miller is lined up along with several other inmates. He’s 31, and near the end of his three-year jail term for burglary.

"Today we are getting our IDs for free from the jail which is a great thing because it is hard to get your ID when you are out there," he said.

Officials say the program is part of a broader effort to cut back on the cycle of incarceration, along with offering help with addiction recovery and job placement.

Inmates at Sarasota County Jail wait to get ID cards, prior to release
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF

"Just to be able to drive again and not get arrested again, to not be on probation again, and get to and from groceries, daycare, jobs, that’s huge," said Colonel Kurt Hoffman, chief deputy at the jail.

An  ID is "important for getting a job, cashing a check, all those things that we take for granted." 

The idea came from Sergeant Ivan Nelson, who has been in corrections for 19 years, 11 of those at Sarasota County Jail.

He noticed a common theme among offenders who landed behind bars again and again.

"Guys were coming back to jail and telling me, 'I couldn’t get services without an ID.' They’d say ‘I went to whatever department, whatever agency and they wanted an ID and all I had was a sheet of paper.’ So I said you know what? I can do it. Let’s figure out a way," Nelson said.

At first, he began driving inmates to the Department of Motor Vehicles himself. But he thought, there must be a better way. He made some calls, held meetings, and worked with colleagues.

They decided to bring the department of motor vehicles inside the jail, in the form of a mobile unit where inmates can get drivers licenses or state IDS before they get out.

It’s called Florida Licensing On Wheels, or FLOW.

On Friday, it was staffed by two officials from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. This is the second time the FLOW unit has been here this year.

"That allows them to get an ID card which is important for getting a job, cashing a check, all those things that we take for granted," said Hoffman.

The costs are paid for by the Inmate Welfare Fund, which is funded by surplus money from commissary items purchased in the jail like candy and snacks.

"A lot of sheriffs’ offices in particular don’t take the perspective that we do. We are obviously law enforcement. We can do some social services work as well," said Hoffman.

"It is the right thing to do. It is not a traditional law enforcement function but the folks are here. Why not give them the opportunity to be successful on the outside?" 

Miller, who also got help for a cocaine addiction while behind bars, says he looks forward to starting fresh when he is released in a few weeks.

"I'm going to get a job. I am a licensed barber so I am going to go back to work. And just continue on a path of recovery."

It's unclear if the program will actually work. But Hoffman is hopeful.

"If you leave here with some jobs skills and with an ID card, you are on a much better path to not to come back to the facility," said Hoffman.

"But I am anxious to see myself in six months how these folks are doing on the outside."

For Nelson, the reward is in seeing people come together, and try to piece together a better future.

"We are trying to tie it together. What do you need? Ok you have a drug addiction? Ok let’s go to the recovery pod. Ok you understand the steps, what do need now, a job?  Ok let’s do a job fair. You don’t have identification? Ok let’s bring in the FLOW bus in to try to get you identification.  So I think we are one of the few that are tying it all together to put together a plan for successful re-entry," Nelson said.

"I have worked in corrections for 19 years and to be able to say I am helping people re-enter society and be successful it means a lot to me. I tell the guys I take pride in what they are doing and they look at me strange. I say no I take pride in the steps you are taking to make it. They try to give me credit. But I always put it back to them."

Nineteen Sarasota inmates got IDS this way in March, and 33 more did on Friday. The jail holds more than 900 inmates.