You Need One Form to Get Your Benefits Back After Jail. Rikers Doesn’t Just Hand It Over.

It was hard enough to get back on Social Security and Medicaid after incarceration. Then Eric Adams slashed reentry services.

Chris Gelardi   ·   July 12, 2023
Eric Adams seen through bars at Rikers Island
New York City Mayor Eric Adams visits Rikers Island on Thanksgiving, 2022. | Benny Polatseck / Mayoral Photography Office

When people get out of jail, there’s a key document they need to regain access to public benefits. Federal law prohibits people from collecting from programs like Social Security and Medicaid while incarcerated, so they need to show proof that they’re out — their discharge papers — to get their benefits back.

The New York City Department of Correction doesn’t automatically provide people with their discharge papers when they’re released, the DOC confirmed to New York Focus. Instead, the department requires those who were jailed pretrial to request the form from a specific DOC office, and it offers referrals to outside organizations to help people navigate that type of hurdle. But those organizations now have reduced capacity: Recent budget cuts under Mayor Eric Adams slashed $17 million in contracted services for jail programming, including reentry services that help people plan for securing housing, health care — and benefits.

The DOC is now expected to provide much of the reentry programming in-house — even as it is mired in such dysfunction that a federal monitor this week recommended that it be held in contempt, and a judge is considering handing the notorious Rikers Island jail complex over to the federal government.

With less support navigating government bureaucracy, formerly incarcerated people may risk going without health care and income.

Trehvahn, a 32-year-old who was arrested and sent to Rikers Island last year, is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and he uses Medicaid to afford his psychiatric medication. Social Security is his only source of income, and the benefits help him avoid homelessness. When he was released in September after eight months on Rikers, he needed to re-enroll, and quickly.

The government required proof that he had left jail, but the DOC didn’t give him his “letter of incarceration” — the department’s term for discharge papers.

It did connect him with Mikey Feliciano, who helps formerly incarcerated people with serious mental illnesses for the nonprofit Fountain House. DOC staff told Feliciano they had to get the paperwork from the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, known as “the Boat,” the jail barge anchored across the East River from Rikers. So they drove there.

At the Boat, staff said they couldn’t give Trehvahn his discharge papers because he didn’t have an ID, according to Feliciano. Trehvahn, who asked New York Focus to identify him only by his first name, said he had an ID when he entered jail but he had lost the receipt for his personal belongings while on Rikers, so he never got his stuff back. It’s a common occurrence, as formerly incarcerated people and their advocates have long told New York Focus. Programs to print new IDs in city jails have never gotten off the ground.

Trehvahn was stuck — and at risk of falling behind on his medication.

“I would’ve had to go back into a shelter and start all over again.”

—Trehvahn, who struggled to get his discharge papers after release from Rikers

It didn’t have to be that way. Other carceral systems, including in New York, have found ways to simplify the work of enrolling people in government programs. The state-level Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, for example, sends daily updates about release dates to the state Department of Health, which then sends people new benefits cards and information packets before their release. A DOCCS spokesperson told New York Focus that the state agency enrolls around 200 people on Medicaid each month — roughly 75 percent of the people it releases.

The New York City DOC, on the other hand, relies on non-government providers like Feliciano to help people leaving its custody enroll in benefits programs. But with Adams’s budget cuts, many of them will be far less available to help. A provider whose contract was cut told New York Focus that they used to make themselves available to incarcerated people daily, but they can now only send representatives twice a week.

With few exceptions, people like Trehvahn have to file a request with a specific DOC office to get their discharge papers and re-enroll in benefits. If they don’t have ID, they’re in a bind.

After striking out with DOC, Feliciano contacted another re-entry service provider, who shared a contact at DOC, who then connected him to someone else at the department who could process the request without an ID. That’s how he gets most of his clients back on Medicaid now — “that’s the only way to get it.”

Feliciano worries about people who don’t get connected to someone like him — something that will surely happen more frequently with Adams’s cuts. Life after jail is hard enough, he said, then the government “makes it that difficult to get back on your benefits.”

Thanks in large part to those benefits, Trehvahn is doing well. Sponsored by Feliciano and Fountain House, he’s living in a supportive housing residence, seeing a psychiatrist, and is hoping to move into his own apartment soon. He doesn’t want to think about what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten back on public benefits.

“I would’ve had to go back into a shelter and start all over again,” Trehvahn said. “I would’ve been messed up, man. I’ve been through that.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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