Reducing Recidivism, Building Community

Muhlenberg’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program receives a $231,000 federal grant to expand its efforts to use education as a tool to end mass incarceration and support citizenship and democracy.

By: Kristine Yahna Todaro  Wednesday, July 27, 2022 09:29 AM

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Muhlenberg hosted a round-table discussion on July 25 with U.S. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania (center) about the grant the College received for its Inside-Out prison education program. From left to right, Lehigh County's Director of Corrections Janine Donate, Community Corrections Center Warden Laura Kuykendall, President Kathleen Harring, Professor of Psychology Kate Richmond, Assessment and Outreach Librarian Jess Denke and 2019 Inside-Out alumnus Kristi Belotto. Photo credits: Kristin Morris

When Kristi Belotto was incarcerated in state prison in 2018, it was the worst moment of her life. 

When she was transferred to the Lehigh County Community Corrections Center, she had the chance to sign up for the Muhlenberg College Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, taking academic courses in which 15 incarcerated “inside” students and 15 campus-based “outside” students attended class together within the prison walls. She says she felt, for the first time, that this part of her life might not be permanent. In fact, it led to a life-changing beginning. 

An alum of the 2019 Inside-Out class, Belotto is now a mental health clinician focused on family-based therapy. She believes the program can make a real difference, reducing recidivism and increasing resilience in participants.

Muhlenberg’s Inside-Out program, launched in the spring of 2018 by Professor of Psychology Kate Richmond ’00 and developed in partnership with the Lehigh County Department of Corrections, is the first to offer college-level courses inside a Lehigh Valley correctional facility. 

Lehigh County's Director of Corrections Janine Donate (left to right) discusses the College’s Inside-Out program with President Harring, Senator Bob Casey and Professor Kate Richmond.

The program is inspired by the National Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, and its goals—to offer for-credit liberal arts courses within the Lehigh County Department of Corrections that would easily transfer to Lehigh Valley colleges and universities, to build a community of higher education practitioners committed to supporting local incarcerated students and to share promising practices in Pennsylvania and across the country—are closer to reality thanks to support from U.S. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and a $231,000 Congressionally directed grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Belotto shared her experiences with Casey at a round-table discussion on Muhlenberg’s campus earlier this week. They were joined by Richmond, lead instructor and coordinator of the College’s program, and other Inside-Out alumni as well as President Kathleen Harring, representatives from Lehigh County’s Department of Corrections and Muhlenberg Assessment and Outreach Librarian Jess Denke, an instructor and program coordinator for the College’s program. 

“I believe mass incarceration is a public health crisis,” said Richmond during the discussion, noting that local prisons are currently the top providers of mental health services in the area. And while there are many valuable job training programs in the correctional system, she says this program is not just a route to a job: “We are focused on the human.” Sitting across a table from one another raises the stakes, she says. It helps people communicate at a deeper level and better understand the hurdles some members of our community face. 

“We all want to be connected to good jobs; we all want to be connected to our family and our community,” Richmond said. “And once we establish relationships with each other, we’re able to tackle the hard questions.”

The inside and outside Muhlenberg students explore topics related to the impacts of poverty, mental illness and racism on incarceration levels and the consequences of imprisonment on families and communities, including job and housing insecurity, increased addiction and generational trauma. With a visit to the College’s Trexler Library and support from Denke, the students work on research projects that address these issues in the Lehigh Valley.

Muhlenberg Assessment and Outreach Librarian Jess Denke, an instructor and program coordinator for the College’s Inside-Out program (left), listens as 2019 Inside-Out alumnus Kristi Belotto talks about her experiences.

In the prison, impressions of the program went from “this is crazy” to “this is amazing,” said Janine Donate, Lehigh County's director of corrections, who participated in the campus discussion. "The program provides inside students the confidence to take a college class at a college level." 

In addition to the courses, the grant will help fund a think tank that facilitates dialogue about mass incarceration between Muhlenberg faculty, staff and Inside-Out alumni. The grant will also support a research lab, a team of faculty, staff and student researchers who will assess learning outcomes, evaluate success and report findings.

The United States incarcerates more individuals than any other country in the world. In Pennsylvania in 2017, there were 48,438 individuals incarcerated and five-year recidivism rates persisted at over 60 percent.