With aims to facilitate social change, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program was implemented at the College in 2014. Inside refers to incarcerated students while outside refers to college—in this case, Muhlenberg—students. This program’s goal is to promote education through dialogue between higher education students and incarcerated students. The dialogue allows for the transformation of communities to be more inclusive and representative of all voices.
The mission statement explains that “Education in which we are able to encounter each other, especially across profound social barriers, is transformative and allows problems to be approached in new and different ways.”
The program dates back to 1997, beginning at Temple University, and has since been implemented on an international level. Hundreds of faculty have taken part in the initiative, including Kate Richmond, Ph.D., director of women & gender studies and associate professor of psychology at the College. Richmond attended training nearly ten years ago for the Inside-Out program and ultimately brought the opportunity to campus.
“It took three years from when I was training to when we were able to even advertise for the classes. It took a long time,” Richmond said. “There are so many logistics, you’re bringing undergraduate students into a maximum security prison. But that first class exceeded anything that I ever anticipated. That class bonded so strongly and what we were learning was incredible. What we were doing was more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen in a classroom at Muhlenberg because you’re bringing together two different modes of knowledge, the lived experience with the textbook.”
“The most impactful part of the class has been hearing the personal stories of the inside students,” shared Courtney Sheckler ‘24, a current student in the course. “It is so easy to distance yourself from what happens in the justice system when you aren’t constantly surrounded by it, so hearing their experiences really put[s] everything into perspective. It is easy to put yourself in their shoes when you spend so much time together. By listening to their stories, we get to see what they believe will be the most beneficial.”
“We get an inside view on how the system treats people, and I believe that listening to the voices of the people who are incarcerated is the best way to find out what they need.”Courtney Sheckler ‘24
“People say that we need to put a higher focus on [the] mental health issue,” shared Murray, an inside student. “They’ve been saying that for a long time. But no one’s doing anything. Not a damn thing.”
Richmond works alongside Jess Denke, social sciences librarian at Trexler Library, in ensuring the availability of the course for students. “Jess and I wrote a grant this past summer for $250,000, which we got,” Richmond shared. “The grant will pay for 15 more faculty [at] Muhlenberg to be trained. So then we can offer maybe two classes a semester, instead of currently what we’re offering, which is once a year. The other part of that grant is to be able to provide college credit for the students who are incarcerated, which up until this point, we have not been able to do.”
The course currently takes place at the Lehigh County Jail where pre-trial detainees and those with local sentences reside. Students visit the jail to cover topics such as the history of racism in prison systems, the profit and consumption of crime, the school-to-prison pipeline and the lack of mental health resources while incarcerated. The course pushes students to become engaged outside the typical classroom setting.
Richmond said, “I think the purpose of a liberal arts education is to encourage students to be engaged citizens. In order to be an informed and engaged participant in democracy, you need to know what our neighbors are going through. The folks who are in the prison are our neighbors. So we’re all interconnected, right? But if we stay siloed it’s a way in which the status quo continues.”
“We are breaking barriers,” stated Natalie Noye ‘23, another current student in the course. “We are stomping on stereotypes and bringing to light the extreme issues that are going on right down the street. It’s the way that I can bring my knowledge back to campus to educate and speak on my experiences inside the jail.”
“It’s eye opening, the fact that not everyone realizes just because we commit a crime doesn’t mean we’re bad people.”Anonymous incarcerated student
Students at the College have shown nothing but gratitude for the program. Incarcerated students have also been moved by their dialogue with some of the Muhlenberg students.
“Without this opportunity, I probably wouldn’t be exposed to people like y’all,” one anonymous inside student noted. “I really appreciate y’all.”
Noye reflected on her time in the course and shared the range of emotions that come with visiting the prisons. “I think it’s important to remember and realize what is going on inside. We ignore and avoid what is going on 10 minutes away from our campus. Our inside students are humans too, and I have never laughed, smiled and felt so much emotion in a college course than I have in this one.”
“Respect your freedom,” Ray, an inside student, noted.
“My body is incarcerated, but my mind isn’t,” shared another incarcerated student.
One inside student shared something he would want Muhlenberg students to know: “I am you in a different life.”
Additional reporting by Cydney Wilson ‘23