Faculty discuss merits of bringing Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program to Lafayette

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The Inside-Out program pairs campus-based college students with incarcerated ones. (Photo courtesy of Inside-Out Center)

For four years, Muhlenberg College – about a half an hour from Easton, Pa. – has been utilizing a program that partners campus-based students with incarcerated students in a Lehigh County correctional facility. The program, coined Inside-Out, creates opportunities for incarcerated students to earn college credit. Now, professors at Lafayette are in discussion to bring the program to College Hill in the future, ideally within the next few years.

The program actually began at Lafayette in 2009 by professor of women, gender and sexuality studies Bonnie Winfield and continued until her retirement.

The program works by teaching both incarcerated and campus-based students within prison walls.

“It’s really about earning college credit for long-term aspirations,” Film and Media Studies Professor Nandini Sikand said.

In Pennsylvania, many incarcerated students have been barred from receiving state financial aid for college, mainly because of Pell Grant eligibility laws. Recently, there has been a push to expand Pell Grant eligibility, and programs like Inside-Out have assisted in removing the barrier to higher education.

There are many benefits that participants can gain from a program like Inside-Out. Pairing campus-based students with incarcerated students addresses criminalized behaviors and interrogates the idea of what crime means. Students that participate in the program can be expected to make new connections that promote the humanization of incarcerated students.

“It’s experiential learning in a new form,” Sikand said.

Sikand has long been an advocate for change within America’s prison system.

In 2019, she released a documentary focusing on the hardships women face in Pennsylvania detention centers. The documentary had been in the works for seven years. Through her visits, she witnessed firsthand the lives of women in these detention centers.

“The treatment they receive is inhumane in so many ways,” Sikand said. “I often helped the women destress by teaching them yoga.” 

Angela Bell, professor of psychology, has also been deeply committed to researching the effects that incarceration has on students and community members. The findings of her data collection will be used to make positive reforms that affect perpetrators, police, victims and lawmakers. 

“With colleagues at Penn State Berks, Muhlenberg and Lehigh University, I am engaged in a community research project that aims to investigate how the local and global events with the criminal legal system have affected stakeholders in the Lehigh Valley,” Bell wrote in an email.

COVID-19 posed many challenges for the program’s survival since many campus-based students were unable to learn in an in-person setting. Inside-Out had to be temporarily shut down during the pandemic, negatively impacting chances for students to receive college credit. Bell’s research was also affected. 

Fortunately, the program has a hopeful new future after receiving a federal grant of $231,000 back in July. Part of these funds will be used to establish similar programs at colleges and universities across the Lehigh Valley. 

According to an email from Kate Richmond, professor of psychology and Inside-Out program coordinator at Muhlenberg College, the school is “at the very beginning stages of implementing our grant. The proposal will take three years to implement, and we won’t know how everything will be organized with other Lehigh [Valley] schools until some time next year.”

While it is unclear when a program that mirrors the one at Muhlenberg College will take its place at Lafayette College, there is a chance that it could be implemented within the next few years. However, Sikand acknowledges that Lafayette will need time to prepare for the program.

“There is just so much that needs to be developed before that can happen,” Sikand said.

Correction 09/30/2022: A previous version of this story excluded Professor Winfield’s original class at Lafayette.