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The number of women incarcerated in the United States is rapidly increasing. More than 40,000 women are serving time in state prisons in Pennsylvania, including approximately 1,400 at the medium/maximum security State Correctional Institution in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Here women convicted of violent crimes such as sexual offenses, assaults, and murders are housed. Many of these women suffer from substance abuse, sexual and physical abuse, and mental health issues. Students in LVC’s “Women in Criminal Justice” First-Year Experience (FYE) class took an in-depth look at these societal issues in a course that culminated with a visit to SCI Muncy.
Dr. Kathryn Whiteley, chair and associate professor of criminal justice, teaches the seminar. Whiteley specializes in criminological research relating to women and their pathways to criminality. She has traveled to interview female offenders incarcerated for murder in the United States, Australia, and Ireland in order to add the voices of the women to existing research on crime, motive, demographics, and general characteristics of female perpetrators.
In her class, Whiteley shared letters from women incarcerated for murder at SCI Muncy with the class to provide points of analysis and discussion ahead of their visit. Along with the letters, a number of guest speakers visited the group throughout the year to talk about the criminal justice system.
“This class was raw and honest about how women are treated in the criminal justice system as well as the crimes they commit,” said Madison Holliger ’22, a physical therapy major. “It also emphasized that we never condone what those women did—but it forced me to think for myself.”
Many of the students noted they were initially nervous about visiting the prison.
“It did not look like a normal prison that we see in movies. It looked like a college campus, with people walking around,” said Erika Van Tries ’22, a physical therapy major. “Many of us did not expect to see the inmates just walking around, even though later we found out that they were on a schedule and could not be out for long.”
The students were pleased to learn that the women have many chances to change their lives for the better while being at SCI Muncy.
“Going to SCI Muncy was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will forever be grateful for,” said physical therapy major Kassidy McKeever ’22. “The Puppy Program, where inmates train puppies to become service dogs, really stood out to me. We talked to a woman who participated in it, and she seemed so proud of what she was doing. It gave her a sense of purpose.”
“These women can get a degree, study cosmetology, and study the culinary arts,” Hollinger said. “They can obtain skills that they can use when they are released and try to find a job, which is extremely helpful considering how difficult a criminal record can make job hunting. This allows them to give back to the community and find a purpose. It also improves emotional and mental health.”
After completing the class, McKeever said she now thinks differently about women who commit crimes.
“There is more to the story than just what the media reports, and it's important to hear all sides. Dr. Whiteley's class was truly an experience I will never forget about LVC because it taught me so many valuable life lessons and got me to examine issues in ways I would not have thought of on my own.”
Dr. Whiteley is co-producer of the documentary Until We Have Faces, a portrait of women serving life sentences in the Pennsylvania prison system.
By Faith Ishler, Marketing & Communications Intern