$231,000 awarded to Pennsylvania college program matching students and inmates
By Jenny Roberts
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — When Rachel Liberty first entered prison four years ago, her worldview was “fundamentally changed.”
Liberty, a graduate of Muhlenberg College, participated in the college’s Inside/Out exchange program in 2018 at Graterford State Prison in Montgomery County. There, she and other Muhlenberg students had classes with incarcerated men who were serving life sentences.
Liberty remembers coming to class on her first day filled with anxiety and leaving later inspired by her classmates.
“They are some of the nicest people I have ever met; plus, some of the brightest,” she said. “These individuals, who know fatal flaws in the system supposed to deliver justice, are the ones who have the solutions to remedy them.”
Liberty shared how her Inside/Out experience shaped her perception of mass incarceration during a panel discussion Monday with U.S. Senator Bob Casey at Muhlenberg College. Casey, D-Pa., helped secure $231,000 in grants for Muhlenberg to augment Inside/Out’s efforts to reduce recidivism and increase employment opportunities for incarcerated people in the Lehigh Valley.
“I grew up in a generation where we thought incarceration was mostly punitive,” Casey said. “And I think what a lot of us have started to realize is that we need to take the rehabilitation part of the sentence a lot more seriously.”
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In Pennsylvania, there are 659 people incarcerated in jails and jails for every 100,000 people in the state, according to 2021 data of the Prison Policy Initiative, a rate higher than in countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada
“I believe mass incarceration is a public health crisis,” said Kate Richmond, Inside/Out program coordinator and psychology professor at Muhlenberg, noting that the prison system affects people of color and people the most. suffering from mental illness.
With the help of federal funds, those incarcerated in Lehigh Valley correctional facilities will now be able to earn college credit for the first time through Muhlenberg College’s Inside/Out program.
Muhlenberg staff hope this will encourage incarcerated students to pursue higher education once released, reducing the chances of them being incarcerated again.
“Until now, we have not been able to award credit to incarcerated students and, in my opinion, this has been a deeply problematic part of our program,” Richmond said. “Having college credit opens up a tremendous amount of opportunity.”
Kristi Belotto, who spoke at the roundtable, was part of the Inside/Out program in 2019 when she was incarcerated at the Lehigh County Community Correctional Center.
Belotto said her experience of incarceration has impacted how she does her job now as a family counselor.
“It definitely made me more humble than I was before my experience,” she said. “It’s really helped me to see my clients where they are, instead of coming in already with [ideas about] why they were recommended for the type of treatment I do.
Belotto said she still keeps in touch with one of Muhlenberg’s students who she befriended through the program.
Muhlenberg will also dedicate funds to his think tank to train graduates of the program on how to facilitate community discussions on criminal justice issues. The money will also go to a research team to measure the effectiveness of the college’s Inside/Out program.
“We are interested in how the liberal arts encourage critical thinking, open-mindedness and dialogue across differences,” said Jess Denke, instructor and program coordinator for Inside/Out.
The first iteration of Inside/Out courses began in the late 1990s at Temple University in Philadelphia. The program has since expanded, with more than 200 college-corrections partnerships worldwide.
Some of the money from Muhlenberg’s grant will be used to help professors at other local universities, such as Lehigh University and Lafayette College, create their own versions of Inside/Out.
At Muhlenberg, the program brings together 15 university students and 15 incarcerated students for a one-semester course to discuss their life experiences and explore five topics related to the prison system: racism, mental health, globalization, mass media and the school-to-prison channel. Students then work on a research project as part of the course to identify a problem related to one of these topics in the Lehigh Valley and propose a way to solve it.
The power of the Inside/Out program lies in bringing together a group of people who might not otherwise meet to bond through conversation, participants said.
By hearing the personal stories of their classmates, participants can think about ways to fix the criminal justice and prison systems and, with the help of Muhlenberg’s think tank, take action at the local level.
“We all want to be connected to good jobs; we all want to be connected to our family; and we all sincerely believe we can do better,” Richmond said. “And once we build relationships with each other, we’re able to tackle the tough questions.”