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Lehigh Prison Project

An advocate for criminal justice week in the Lehigh Valley, Tori Campbell carves out two hours a week to tutor inmates at the Northampton County Prison who come from low-income, abusive or unsupportive environments.

Northampton County Prison. (Morning Call)

University chaplain Lloyd Steffen pioneered the Lehigh Prison Project in 2008 which began as a community service learning course.

At the time, Steffen was teaching the first community service learning course set up at Lehigh as a service learning course. Initially, organizers coordinated community engagement efforts with Fountain Hill and Donegan Elementary Schools, St. Lukes, which delivered medical supplies to low-income households on the Southside, and a tutoring program with Northampton County Prison in Easton.

The course ended in 2008, but the faculty and staff had developed strong relationships with staff members at the prison and Lehigh students who participated in the tutoring program thoroughly enjoyed their experience, according to Steffen. As a result, he converted the fledgling tutoring program into the Lehigh Prison Project.

“The students that participated in the tutoring program at the prison really had a great time. About a third of the class volunteered so there was roughly 8 to 10 students,” Steffen said.

Since 2008, he says the Lehigh Prison Project has sent 20-25 students each semester to volunteer in a tutoring program at the Northampton County Prison.

“There is a healthy mix of first-time volunteers and veterans, but many of the students who choose to volunteer, do so for multiple semesters,” Steffen said.

The project is always recruiting new people to contribute and students who desire to volunteer must attend a mandatory informational session and bring a government issued photo ID.

According to the Lehigh Prison Project information on the Dialogue Center website, the program asks students to commit 90 minutes to 2 hours a week tutoring inmates at the Northampton County Prison in Easton, who are preparing for the high school equivalency exam or GED. However, there are college level courses offered through Northampton Community College at the prison.

Students who volunteer in the program engage in traditional one-on-one tutoring with the inmate they are assigned to. Tori Campbell, ‘20, is a tutor at the Northampton County Prison. She volunteers one to two hours once a week to assist inmates in learning algebra, reading comprehension and science skills to obtain their GED. In addition to these subjects, she helps some inmates learn functional reading skills along with other basic topics.

“I have always had a curiosity about inmates. I wondered how they thought, why they made the decisions they did, if they differ from people I know or if they are the same but seriously stigmatized,” Campbell said.

Campbell believes that educating prisoners benefits society as a whole because the entire community benefits from the empowerment of disenfranchised people.

“Why leave someone worse off coming out of the oppressive, incarcerative setting when we can help them build productive skill sets during their incarceration for when they leave?” Campbell said.

Adele Hancock, ‘21, is another volunteer in the Lehigh Prison Project. She believes that the program has changed her perspective on inmates by giving her a better sense of who ends up in prison and why.

“We aren’t working with ‘the worst of the worst’,” Hancock said. “For the most part we are working with people who made a mistake they couldn’t afford to fix, and had to go to prison as a consequence.”

Lehigh County Director of Corrections Janine Donate declares that a jail is not merely a building to hold inmates charged or convicted of a crime.

“We have a commitment to those incarcerated, their families and children, and the community at large to provide the tools and resources that give them a chance,” Donate said. “A chance to be in a better position for success than when they were admitted.”

There are no strict requirements for a student who wants to tutor, they just have to submit some paperwork through Dr. Steffen’s office. Hancock definitely wants to get more students involved in the program in 2019.

“There are some days where we can be spread thin, and I’d love to see more people participating and helping,” Hancock said.

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