Ex-Offenders Quest for Driver's License Tests Patience

Tuesday, Apr 01, 2014

Ex-Offenders Quest for Driver's License Tests Patience

Reprinted with permission by the Commercial Appeal
by Wendi Thomas
Feb 7 2014

For the last three years, Charles Hadley gamely endured hourslong rides on an inefficient bus system.

He walked to bus stops with a stick to ward off stray dogs.

He’s an ex-offender. He hasn’t missed a day at the only job he could find. He earns $7.25 per hour at Taco Bell, the same as the day he was hired in 2011.

To get to a 90-minute tutoring lesson atLiteracy Mid-South required a two-hour bus ride.

All that pales in comparison to his saga to get the piece of plastic most tucked into wallets as a teen.

After a year of trying and being stymied at nearly every turn, Hadley, 46, got his first driver’s license last month.

Need proof that the system is set up for ex-offenders to fail? Hadley’s story is a great place to start.

A driver’s license requires four forms of ID and two documents to prove you live in Tennessee.

Acceptable forms? A utility bill, voter’s registration, car title, military ID, or a passport.

Hadley lives with his mother. The lights are in her name. Ex-offenders can’t vote. He’s never had a car, been in the military or outside the country.

A birth certificate works, but prison authorities didn’t return his certified copy when he was released in 2010.

His name was misspelled on the first replacement he received by mail.

The next step: Preparing for the test itself.

He studied the manual on the way to his work, consulting fellow passengers to explain parts he didn’t understand.

“I even went all the way up to the bus driver and asked him,” Hadley said.

But the test questions weren’t worded like those on the practice exam.

That confused Hadley, who reads at a fifth-grade level. It infuriated his tutor, Vicki Murrell.

One of the questions, Murrell griped, went like this: If you’re driving 70 miles per hour and you see a deer, how long would it take you to stop?

The answer: One-and-a-half football fields. That requires you to know how long a football field is, a measurement expressed in yards, and how many feet are in a yard.

These math skills, albeit basic, have nothing to do with what a driver really needs to know: If a deer darts in front of your car, the faster you’re driving and the longer it takes you to react, the more likely you are to have venison as a dinner option.

Then there’s getting to one of the county’s two driver service centers.

You guessed it: The bus doesn’t go there.

From his mother’s house near Whitehaven, it’s a two-hour bus ride plus a short walk to the center on Shelby Drive. It’s more than two hours on the bus and a 1.3-mile walk to the center on Summer.

I first wrote about Hadley in December 2012. The month before, voters said no to a one-cent gas tax for the Memphis Area Transit Authority, which has been forced to cut routes.

Then, you have to take the test, which costs $2.

Unless you know to ask for another option, you’ll take it on the computer, which Hadley never learned to use while he was behind bars for nonviolent offenses.

“It is beyond me why they wouldn’t teach them that in prison,” she said.

“I don’t blame the prisons because I had an opportunity to choose a different life,” Hadley said.

“But as a society and a culture,” Murrell replied, “if we don’t want people to go back to prison, we have to give them the tools to stay out of prison.”

The computer boots you off after seven wrong answers on the 30-question test. In five tries, Hadley never got more than 10 answers right.

If you fail, you have to wait a week to try again.

Murrell, a professor at the University of Memphis, suspected Hadley would do better with pen and paper.

She was right: On his second try, he got 27 questions right. He passed.

If this story ended here, Hadley’s journey would still be unnecessarily arduous. But it’s not over.

To schedule his road exam, first an examiner had to check for any outstanding tickets.

And what do you know — an unpaid ticket for $70 popped up in Illinois, where he’d been convicted.

Hadley has never had a driver’s license before. He asked if the ticket belonged to his father, but was told no.

He sent in the money and waited for proof he’d paid.

Armed with a letter from the state of Illinois, he returned to the driver center.

“The computer in Memphis was still showing that I wasn’t cleared,” he said.

After some investigation, Hadley’s original suspicion was confirmed.

The ticket was for a man born in 1950 — Hadley’s father.

“You need to follow up and get that $70 back,” Murrell said. “That’s a month of car insurance.”

Hadley brushed her concern away. “God will take care of me.”

It seems the divine was on his side. A sympathetic examiner took pity on Hadley and agreed to give him a road test right then.

He passed. After about a year of trying, he had a license — but not a car.

Enter the divine again.

His parole officer told him about a two-week temporary job digging ditches that paid about $10 an hour. But he’d have to work 12-hour shifts for 14 days straight.

His boss at Taco Bell reluctantly agreed to give him the time off — without pay, of course.

He and his co-workers were so fast that in 10 days, the work was done.

With the $860 paycheck and the $40 he would have spent on bus fare, he bought a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix GT.

His trip to work has shrunk from two hours on the bus to 35 minutes on city streets. He won’t get on the interstate.

And there’s more.

“What happens in April?” Murrell prompted.

“I’m a free man,” Murrell said, beaming.

After three years, his federal parole will end.

He will still have to check “yes” on job applications that ask about felony convictions. He will not be able to vote.

He will not be deterred. He’s praying for a better job, maybe one where he can afford or get health insurance.

“When people don’t give me a chance, it makes me work harder.”