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," said the three-term Republican representative. "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.