By Charlotte West, Open Campus Reporter – Reprinted by permission of College Inside Newsletter
I first read about Johnny Pippins last fall when I was Googling graduate programs in prison. It turns out, there’s not much out there other than a program in Texas, a handful of faith-based programs, and some correspondence programs. Then I came across a post, “A Prisoner and a Ph.D.” on Brown University Professor Glenn Louryʼs blog. Loury was the first Black economist to gain tenure at Harvard and he’s written extensively about race and mass incarceration.
He published a letter from Johnny detailing his educational accomplishments behind bars — he’s earned a bachelor’s and master’s, including a remote internship, paid for with the inheritance left by his mother. Not only that, he’s been accepted and offered full funding for the doctoral program in sociology at University of Iowa.
The catch? Unlike his master’s in statistics, which was an asynchronous online program, Johnny has to be there in person. And he’s still got four years left of the 30 he’s expected to serve.
He’s waiting to hear on a clemency petition that has been sitting on Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzkerʼs desk since last fall. He’s hoping the governor will commute his sentence in time to start his Ph.D. in August.
Part of the ‘lost generation’
The more I learned about Johnny, the more I saw how his story highlights many of the big issues facing the U.S. criminal-legal system.
In 1996, he went to prison for murder at the age of 26 — one of thousands upon thousands of young Black and Brown men that belong to what prison journalist John J. Lennon calls the “lost generation.” That was two years after Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners with the 1994 crime bill, heralding an era of mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, and extreme sentences.
Johnny was the lone defendant in his case to go to trial. While he faced a longer sentence than the rest of his crew because he pulled the trigger in the drug-related shooting, he also paid what researchers call “the trial penalty.”
While the right to a trial by jury is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment, less than three percent of all state and federal cases are heard by a jury. And those who do choose to exercise those rights “face exponentially higher sentences” if they lose, the National Association of
Criminal Defense Lawyers has found. In Johnny’s case, that meant consecutive sentences that added up to nearly 30 years behind bars.
Should education be the bar?
Johnny’s education — both the degrees he has already completed and the Ph.D. that he wants to do — are the basis of his application for commutation. So how much does education matter in clemency decisions? And how much should it matter?
Factors the review board and the governor consider include remorse, disciplinary history, housing and job prospects, upbringing, as well as education and other programming while incarcerated, said Jennifer Soble of the Illinois Prison Project. Education as a measure of personal growth and transformation can be problematic if it becomes the main metric by which all clemency applications are judged.
Many prisoners with long sentences are excluded from most or all educational opportunities, or do not have the financial resources to self-finance higher education. Many people might engage in informal learning, something that is significantly more difficult to quantify in a clemency application than formal credentials gained through a graduate program.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people who are currently incarcerated, who are just as deserving of meaningful review, and who have poured their hearts and souls into their own personal growth and development,” Soble told me.
Johnny agrees. “I want to get out, no doubt,” he said, “but I am worried that if this sets the bar, a lot of worthy people will be left behind.”
Johnny’s story has parallels with that of Brandon Brown, who was able to start his Ph.D. at George Mason University in 2020 while he was incarcerated in Maine only because his program pivoted to online learning during the pandemic.
Both Brandon and Johnny have had to push prison administrators to gain permission to participate in online learning for their master’s program, and both had an unusual combination of persistence and opportunity that opened doors. In Brandon’s case, he got permission only because administrators didn’t think he’d get admitted to graduate school.
“I don’t believe I’m exceptional, only that I had exceptional opportunities,” Brandon says. “It gets under my skin when all people want to talk about is how I did this; it doesn’t matter how I did it unless we can make it possible for other people.”
A case for academic advising
The other thing that struck me in talking with Johnny was the fact that he still has a gap in his knowledge about higher education despite all of his accomplishments. At the age of 52, he’s dealing with many of the same challenges that all first-generation students face, with the added complexities of studying from prison.
During our first conversation, I asked him if he had any questions for me. He had received his financial aid package from Iowa and wondered if he might still be eligible for Pell Grants. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that Pell Grants are only for students seeking first-time undergraduate degrees.
He also shared how it took him a while to even figure out what an asynchronous online program was — until he finally got the IT department to tell him it simply means that you download a pre-recorded lecture to your device and watch it at your convenience.
Johnny’s story speaks to the need to build strong systems for academic advising as more colleges consider launching prison education programs with Pell Grant restoration next summer. Not only will incarcerated students need help navigating their undergraduate education, they also need information about what options are available should they want to continue their education after that.