What My Research of Incarcerated Women Taught Me About Myself

Sarah Kharalah

Sarah Kharalah ’24, a double major in criminal justice and psychology, talks about her collaboration with Dr. Kathryn Whiteley, associate professor of criminal justice. Whiteley is one of seven LVC professors who received a PLEET grant, funded by David and Lynn Pleet and awarded by LVC Academic Affairs for research projects. The grant allows Whiteley and Kharalah to spend the next year examining “the narratives of incarcerated women who commit murder.”  

I have always been keen to study criminality and the criminal justice system. However, I am most interested in learning about criminology, specifically “who and why” women commit violent crimes.

This summer, my perspective changed in one afternoon with a trip to the State Correctional Institute at Muncy.

Imagine walking into a women’s maximum-security prison for the very first time and not knowing what to do or expect. On arrival, being greeted by a prison administrator and then taken to the visitors building.  

As we entered, there were correctional officers nearby, and nine women sitting around in a large circle, who all looked up. When they see us, at that moment, there are smiles. I was nervous and anxious. These women are in for murder, serving life sentences. I walked with my professor to meet the women. They introduced themselves and then it was my turn. They were all staring, waiting for me to say something. At that moment, my mind was overwhelmed.  

I then spoke to each woman and as I looked at them, I realized they are grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts. At that instance, I didn’t see women convicted for murder. The women shared information about themselves and then it was my turn. This was one of those moments that took me by surprise. They wanted to know about me and why I was there with Dr. Whiteley. They insisted I be part of the overall conversation, and I was, something I never anticipated. No matter how anxious I felt at the beginning, that soon faded. They made me feel welcome. 

As Dr. Whiteley’s research assistant, I have also been privy to several of the women’s confidential criminal cases. Working closely with my professor, in and outside of the prison, I have read, reviewed, and analyzed the women’s criminal and personal stories. This includes learning about their victimization, trauma, family, relationships, and their everyday existence, being incarcerated for life. This collaborative research continues to challenge me. I am taken out of my personal and professional comfort zone whereby no day is the same.

This ongoing experiential focus is something I could never have imagined. It will continue to personally impact me as I complete my degree. Having this incredible research opportunity combined with my criminal justice degree is invaluable and impacts me deeply. I believe it will allow me increased opportunities for my future career. I am forever grateful!