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Walker touts bill to help prisoners gain marketable skills

GREENSBORO — About 100 people interested in prison reform came to a meeting Monday that focused on local Congressman Mark Walker’s proposal to provide apprenticeships for inmates looking to turn their lives around.

Walker said his Prison to Prosperity Act was aimed at making a dent in the numbers of former inmates who break the law and end up behind bars again.

He noted that the nation’s prison population hovers at or above 2.2 million, equaling that of “Russia and China combined.”

“We’re spending $70 billion a year to keep people incarcerated,” the three-term Republican representative said. “I can think of a whole lot better places that $70 billion could be used.”

Unemployment is a key factor that makes it difficult for former inmates to stay out of trouble, Walker and other panelists said Monday at the mid-morning event that lasted more than an hour.

The congressman noted that as many as 60 percent of former prisoners remain unemployed a year after their release. That increases the likelihood they will return to a life of crime, he said.

The bill he introduced in September would enlist several federal agencies in fostering apprenticeships to train inmates in such fields as modern manufacturing, cyber security and health care so they are better prepared to succeed after their release.

Walker shared a stage at the Welfare Reform Liaison Project’s training center on North Raleigh Street with two panelists, the Rev. Odell Cleveland of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Lynch Hunt, a motivational speaker and reformer.

Hunt served time in prison for drug dealing but was able to learn about the fitness industry and gain several, related certifications that helped him rebuild his life.

Now an owner of AWOL Fitness on East Washington Street, Hunt told the audience how he has advised other newly-released inmates.

“The man that I was, I was willing to kill him so that when I got a chance at redemption I would be able to seize the opportunity,” Hunt said of his transformation.

He has written a book about his experiences entitled “From Prison to Prosperity,” which helped to inspire Walker’s proposed measure.

Cleveland, who also has experience helping former inmates get back on their feet, said they need a lot of support and “tough love” to successfully make the transition.

He commented on the novelty of a white, conservative Republican congressman working in concert with “Coach Lynch” — a black, former prison inmate — to bring about needed reform.

“He has a lot to risk working with the coach,” Cleveland said of Walker. “The coach has a lot to risk in partnering with the congressman.”

Walker represents North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District that includes parts of Greensboro and suburban and rural Guilford County.

The district has been redrawn extensively to include more black voters in the aftermath of lawsuits against gerrymandered congressional maps enacted by the General Assembly, which draws congressional districts statewide.

North Carolina’s congressional map is undergoing another such revision that could make the 6th District even less hospitable to a GOP candidate.

Walker has reached out to the African-American electorate in such ways as promoting legislation that helps historically black colleges and universities.

Walker said that current and former inmates would be one of several groups eligible for apprenticeships under the program. Others would include veterans and those still in the military, high school students and people not currently enrolled in an educational institution.

He said the Prison to Prosperity Act would make permanent an executive order that President Donald Trump signed two years ago doubling federal spending on the Apprenticeship USA program to $200 million a year.

Students at these colleges can use their student IDs to vote. Many others can’t.

RALEIGH — Using a student ID or government employee ID to vote next year could be complicated.

Dozens of community colleges, private colleges and state and local government agencies either didn’t apply to have their identifications accepted at the polls, or their applications were rejected — and new applications won’t be accepted until after the 2020 elections.

Voters looking to use a student or employee ID might need to consult a list on the State Board of Elections website to determine if their ID is considered valid. And it won’t be clear for a few more weeks how many UNC System schools will have their student IDs accepted.

The elections board recently released a list of 44 approved IDs, adding to the roughly 80 IDs approved in the first round of reviews earlier this year. The latest approvals include student IDs for 11 private colleges and universities and four community colleges; the board rejected student IDs from St. Andrews University and employee IDs from the city of Gastonia because the applications were submitted after the deadline.

No UNC System campuses were on the latest list, but 12 of them that had their applications rejected in the first round had until Friday to reapply. UNCG and N.C. A&T were among schools that had their applications rejected in the earlier round. It wasn’t clear if they had resubmitted their applications by the deadline.

The requirement that tripped up many of the UNC System schools was the provision in the voter ID law that requires ID photos to be “taken by the university or college or its agents or contractors.” Some had previously allowed students to submit their own photos.

In its new application, UNC-Chapel Hill officials explain that while self-submitted photos are still used, university staff review another photo ID for the student and their physical appearance to ensure they match the submitted photo.

A similar process is in place at UNC-Wilmington, according to Mark Lanier, assistant to the chancellor. “We’ll submit that formally, and hopefully our student ID will be approved,” he said.

None of the state’s private colleges or community colleges had rejected applications in the first round, so the list of accepted IDs for those is finalized. That means IDs from about 19 of the state’s 58 community colleges will be accepted at the polls, along with IDs from 20 of the 36 private schools that are part of N.C. Independent Colleges and Universities.

The community colleges system office has heard a number of concerns from college administrators who didn’t apply, including the cost of upgrading ID-producing equipment, an inability to meet security requirements, and a lack of policies and procedures to verify the student’s identity as required in the law.

Asheville–Buncombe Technical Community College recently told WLOS that its ID-making station would need to be moved to a campus police station to meet security requirements, and that the move might require additional staff.

But the security rules in the law are relatively vague, requiring only that “the equipment for producing the identification cards is kept in a secure location.” Community-college system office spokeswoman Jane Stancill also said some colleges likely opted out because their “student ID policy already requires an ID that would otherwise be eligible for a voter ID.”

Hope Williams, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities organization, said some private schools didn’t apply because most of their students are from North Carolina and likely already have valid voter IDs like a driver’s license. Others, she said, were concerned about the cost of modifying their IDs to comply with state requirements.

“Campuses usually have set time frames for this kind of major change so we may see more campuses apply as they make those changes in the future,” she said. Students from colleges and universities that aren’t on the list can still get a photo ID for free at county election offices.

Many of the colleges and universities — public and private — that applied to the elections board are now facing subpoenas from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is suing to overturn the voter ID law.

A subpoena sent to the UNC System and community college system seeks a massive amount of student and employee data, including each student and employee’s name, home address, date of birth and driver’s license number, as well as documents showing how many are registered to vote and what their “racial demographics” are.

The N.C. Department of Justice refused to comply on behalf of both the UNC and community college offices, noting that students’ personal information is confidential under federal law.

“Plaintiffs have not even attempted to explain how their subpoena, seeking a multitude of confidential information about students and employees as well as information about their racial demographics and voter registrations, is reasonably calculated to lead to evidence relevant to plaintiffs’ claims in this litigation,” Attorney General Josh Stein and assistant attorney general Nora Sullivan wrote in September.

The Southern Coalition did not respond to questions from the NC Insider about its reasons for seeking the information.

'Rabid hate group' Westboro Baptist came to Greensboro. So did the counterprotesters, in much greater numbers.

GREENSBORO Retired professors, clergy of various faiths and even a life-sized Care Bear holding a “free hugs” sign joined Monday to build a buffer between Guilford College students and a group the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”

So when the three sign-toting members of Westboro Baptist Church, a Topeka, Kan., congregation that publicly taunts gay people and shows up for celebrity funerals, arrived at Friendly Avenue and Guilford College Road, they were met with a wall of about 200 backs.

The back of the rabbi from the synagogue down the street.

The backs of pastors from nearby religious congregations.

Backs of people of faith and no-faith.

“The absurdity of my costume is to reflect the absurdity of their presence,” said Joan Mitchell, a local Quaker in a blue Care Bear costume with a tutu around the waist.

Separating the two groups were dozens of police officers, including a gaggle of them on bikes.

And silence.

Even as the Westboro members held up disparaging signs with slurs against gay people and shocking messages, including “God sent the shooter.”

As they blared parody songs from the Eagles and others with their own bashing lyrics.

“Let’s not give them any oxygen,” Wess Daniels, the director of the Friends Center campus ministries, earlier urged the crowd.

Meanwhile ...

At UNCG, a similar — but much louder — scene played out later Monday morning.

Three Westboro Baptist protesters stood with signs at South Josephine Boyd Street and Spring Garden Street, on the sidewalk in front of a Walgreens drug store and across from the UNCG campus.

A crowd of several hundred UNCG students and other counterprotesters occupied the other three corners. University and Greensboro police were on all four. Police surrounded the Westboro protesters, who weren’t approached during their vigil.

Counterprotesters waved rainbow-colored signs and umbrellas and passed out rainbow-colored stickers. They sang “Let it Shine” and “We Shall Overcome,” accompanied by a UNCG student on a four-string hybrid instrument known as a banjolele. An ad-hoc brass band of about a dozen students warmed up with scales, then launched into “Let’s Go Band” (“Bum bum bum bun-um ...”), “Jingle Bells” and snippets of other pop and pep band tones. The crowd, which grew as the counterprotest continued, clapped and cheered every few minutes whenever a passing motorist honked.

As a light drizzle fell, protesters and counterprotesters stayed on their respective corners for about 25 minutes, one in silence, one with enough noise to nearly drown out passing traffic.

When the Westboro protesters put away their signs and drove off, the UNCG crowd serenaded them with the “Na na, hey hey, goodbye” tune often sung by winning fans at sporting events.

‘Do not be deceived’

At Guilford College, group leader Shirley Phelps-Roper and the others — a nephew and a niece — toted their signs on the public sidewalk in front of the liberal arts college for about half an hour.

Members of Westboro, which has been featured on “60 Minutes” and other national news outlets, had earlier stood in front of High Point Central, where they were met with a wall of about 100 people and rainbow umbrellas between them and the students on the other side.

Guilford County Schools Superintendent, Sharon Contreras could be seen among the counterprotestors, holding a message sign with the word “Love” in bright purple.

The small church’s members, who blame the country’s ills on the tolerance of gay people, have picketed hundreds of spots across the country.

The group has picketed the funerals of celebrities and others in the news, including Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming man tortured and murdered a decade ago because he was gay.

Phelps-Roper said the group chooses high school and colleges, as was the plan in Guilford County, to counter the acceptance of the gay lifestyle.

“They are taught God will love them anyway ... do not be deceived,” Phelps-Roper said.

Besides a few honks from passing drivers along Friendly and Guilford, not a single word was exchanged between the groups.

“Love showed up,” said the Rev. Kim Priddy, pastor of Sedgefield Presbyterian Church, “and students went on about their day.”