Inside/Out class grants college credit to incarcerated students

The class combines Muhlenberg students with incarcerated students in the Lehigh County Jail.

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Photo by Photo Editor Kira Bretsky '27

Katherine Conlon was a student in the course for the spring 2024 semester.

On April 25, Muhlenberg’s Inside/Out program held its graduation ceremony at the Lehigh County Jail. The course is headed by Professor of Psychology and Director of Women & Gender Studies Kate Richmond, Ph.D., and Community Engagement Librarian Jess Denke. Composed of both Muhlenberg “outside” students and incarcerated “inside” students, the class intends to develop community and bring awareness to the phenomenon of mass incarceration. 

“The Inside/Out course is based on the belief that learning occurs best through community. Over the course of a semester, we learn to grow together– through mutual respect and trust. From there, we can tackle complicated social questions by integrating the talent in the room and by engaging in rigorous scholarship and experiential knowledge. After the experience, none of us are the same; it is transformative in ways that are hard to replicate in a traditional classroom,” said Richmond.

In developing the course, Richmond and Denke established four core values: community, intergenerational learning, academic rigor and joy. “In the years that Kate and I have been teaching this course, we have experienced the highs and lows of activism and advocacy related to higher education in prisons. These core values help us sustain our work. Our work is scholarly, but by integrating joy and leaning on our community, including children and elders, we have found balance to the sadness and anger that we experience through engagement with the injustices of mass incarceration in America,” said Denke, reflecting on the values. 

Photo by Photo Editor Kira Bretsky ’27

This year’s closing ceremony celebrated Inside/Out’s fifth cohort. “This is our fifth year, and every year, I think, this is the best closing ceremony. Each time, I am left speechless by the commitment of every student who brings their best thinking, passion and knowledge to the closing ceremony,” said Richmond.

This group was the first to all receive college credit for completion of the course, thanks to a $231,000 federal grant. “It’s been our goal to offer college credit to our students who are incarcerated from the beginning– it is an issue of equity. We hope that credit will offer our students a path to continue on in their education. Access to higher education while in prison has been shown to reduce recidivism and so we hope that our students will increasingly succeed and, therefore, so will the program,” commented Denke. 

The ceremony consisted of poster presentations on topics ranging from reentry to solitary confinement. Following the presentations, students read excerpts from class readings and personal writings. Lastly, certificates and tee-shirts were distributed to the group. Some of the event’s attendees included Allentown mayor Matt Tuerk, representatives from US Senator Bob Casey’s office and representatives from US Congresswoman Susan Wild’s office. 

Photo by Photo Editor Kira Bretsky ’27

Some of the students from this year’s class reflected on their experiences taking the course.

“I knew going into the class that I would have a wonderful experience and gain perspective but I had no idea just how much this class would shift my worldview. The people I met on the inside were some of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met in my life. It was so moving to learn their stories and share ours. The class brought both inside and outside classmates together in a way I don’t think any of us expected. My desire for criminal justice reform has only increased since taking the class and I’m sure everyone else feels the same way,” said outside student Maya Brooks ‘24. 

“I feel as if this class provided an accurate representation of the conditions under which jails in America operate, along with showing us the ground reality of the unfairness of the justice system. Everyone is one simple mistake away from being considered a criminal and this is more true for certain individuals more than others. It was refreshing to be able to connect with such a diverse group of individuals at a meaningful level and I believe it is one of the best classes I have ever taken due to how hands-on its approach is,” commented outside student Darain Khan ‘25. 

“The Inside/Out program has impacted me in many ways [and] helped me unlock and let go of a lot of pain that ran my life and kept me stuck. It provided me with an opportunity to surrender and tune into using my brain with influential principles…  It helped overcome fears and frustrations and approach life’s challenges differently. With dignity, courage, mindfulness, accountability, honor, faith, a glimmer of hope and even humor,” said one inside student. 

Photo by Photo Editor Kira Bretsky ’27

Katie is a Media & Communication and Political Science double major in the class of 2024. When she's not working on the paper you can find her blasting Taylor Swift, reading Jane Austen, or crying over Little Women (2019).

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