“Internship with a twist,” the subject line read. 

The unusual message caught the eye of Dan Nettleton, a professor at Iowa State University, as he scrolled through the mailing list for the American Statistical Association. 

It was from a graduate student seeking a supervisor for an internship, with some unique challenges. He was in prison for murder. “I will be prohibited from intern work such as coffee runs … but I think that we can pull off the required analysis part,” the email read. 

Nettleton thought he could help and reached out to the student, Johnny Pippins. “It was really powerful that he was attempting this,” said Nettleton, who directs a biostatistics research center at Iowa State. 

The next summer, in 2020, Nettleton and Pippins, who is serving an expected 30 years at Iowa’s Anamosa State Penitentiary, started working remotely on a project focused on gene expression among patients with different types of lupus, the disease that took Pippins’s mother’s life in 2010.

A year after the internship, in 2021, Pippins graduated with a master’s degree in statistical science from the University of Idaho, which allowed him to study remotely from prison. 

Pippins now wants a Ph.D. He received a fully funded offer from the University of Iowa to pursue a doctorate in sociology. But, first he has to get out of prison. 

He’s waiting to hear on a clemency petition that has been sitting on Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk since last fall. Pippins was sentenced in Illinois but was allowed to spend the majority of his incarceration in Iowa because he wanted to be closer to his family. He’s hoping the governor will commute his sentence and let him out four years earlier than expected. 

He has a tight deadline. His Ph.D. program starts in August. He can only do it in person. 

How a bookworm ended up behind bars

Pippins grew up as the oldest of four children and spent the 1970s and 1980s bouncing between Illinois, Iowa, Arkansas and Missouri. As a child, Pippins excelled at school and sports, with his nose always in the books. 

“The thing that the other kids found most peculiar about me was the inordinate amount of time, in their minds, that I spent at the library,” he said. 

When he was 19 and in prison for the first time, his favorite uncle — who Pippins said described him as a “smart kid who did dumb shit” — bet him that he wouldn’t be able to finish high school. Within a week, he had earned his GED. 

But Pippins struggled with a father he said was physically abusive and a childhood marked by constant moves as the family fled from his father. As a teenager, he left home, spending much of his time on the streets of Chicago. “Eventually I dropped out of school, gave up sports, and became a gang member and a hustler,” Pippins said. 

As a young adult, Pippins spent two shorter stints in prison, once for theft and another on drug-related charges, he said. When he was 19 and in prison for the first time, his favorite uncle — who Pippins said described him as a “smart kid who did dumb shit” — bet him that he wouldn’t be able to finish high school. Within a week, Pippins had taken all the tests and had earned his GED, a high school equivalency degree. 

In the summer of 1996, Pippins, his brother, and several friends went on a robbery spree in the Quad Cities, four cities that straddle Illinois and Iowa. The group targeted drug dealers, who typically have stash houses on both sides of the Mississippi River, Pippins said. 

One night, Pippins and his crew attempted to rob Jermaine Campbell at his home in Rock Island, Illinois. When Pippins tried to shoot the lock off Campbell’s door, a bullet went through and struck Campbell in the heart, killing him, Pippins said. 

Campbell’s death led to investigations in both states, resulting in murder and kidnapping charges in Illinois and other charges in Iowa related to the summer robberies. Pippins was the lone defendant who decided to go to trial. Murder charges against three of his co-defendants were dropped when they pleaded guilty to home invasion and testified against Pippins, according to a press account and Pippins. His brother William Pippins received the harshest sentence —  15 years — of the other co-defendants, with a concurrent sentence between Iowa and Illinois. 

Pippins ended up with consecutive sentences in those states and was expected to serve nearly 30 years behind bars. He’s finished 26. 

How much should college count?
Illustration by Emily Forschen for Open Campus. Photos courtesy of Johnny Pippins and Fortepan Iowa.

Clemency petitions, which include pardons and sentence commutations, must address two main questions, said Jorie K. Johnson, an Illinois criminal defense attorney who specializes in clemency applications, though she is not involved in Pippins’s case: Why are you in need of the relief? Why do you deserve relief?

For Pippins, the answer to both questions is his education. 

How much education should matter in weighing his fate was first a question for the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which made a confidential recommendation to the governor on Pippins’s application.

Other factors the review board and the governor consider are remorse, a prisoner’s disciplinary history, their housing and job prospects, upbringing, as well as programming while incarcerated, explained Jennifer Soble, an attorney and executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit focused on getting people out of prison. Programming, which includes education, can be challenging because many prisoners, especially those with long sentences, are often excluded from most or all opportunities. 

“It’s really hard to show to the Prisoner Review Board the robustness of a person’s relationships or the depth of a person’s intellectual engagement,” Soble said. “For someone like Johnny, that probably will be substantially easier. He’s got all of this sort of incredible credentialing of someone who is participating in a Ph.D. program.”

But, she added, “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.”

Some people, for example, have finished high school or worked as porters or in the prison kitchen. The challenge, Soble said, is getting the Prisoner Review Board to recognize the accomplishments of people who do not have the same capacity or opportunities as Pippins has had.

Pippins 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.” 

Cornel West, a prominent political activist and academic, and Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, are advocating for Pippins’s release. “We believe no further good can come from keeping Johnny in prison,” they wrote to the governor this month. “Indeed, the people of Illinois and Iowa can only benefit from his timely release.”

The state’s attorney for Rock Island County, where Pippins was charged, confirmed the office did not file an objection to Pippins’ clemency petition.

“I want to get out, no doubt, but I am worried that if this sets the bar, a lot of worthy people will be left behind.”

Johnny Pippins

But securing clemency at all — for whatever the reason — is a long shot.  

“In the 1800s and in the first part of the 1900s, clemency was granted all of the time at the state and at the federal level,” Soble said. “That slowed really dramatically in the past 50 years.” 

In particular, the 1994 federal crime bill ushered in tough-on-crime policies and governors began to use their use of clemency powers less frequently. It was an era of mandatory minimums, three strikes laws and extreme sentences. 

‘No one ever accused me of not being persistent’

Aside from some minor infractions during his early years behind bars, Pippins has had a clean record, according to his clemency application. “I just kind of cut out the nonsense, tried to rectify my affairs spiritually, and make the best of the situation that I was in,” he said. 

When his mother passed away, Pippins used his inheritance to fund his higher education. The 1994 crime bill also had eliminated federal money to help people in prison attend college. 

While he was working on his undergraduate degree through Adams State University, a high school teacher at the prison asked him if he would be a math tutor after seeing his grades. When the actual math teacher retired, Pippins became the de facto instructor for GED students.

After getting his bachelor’s, Pippins wanted something more, but there are very few graduate programs available for people in prison, even if they have the resources to pay. 

For nearly two years, he wrote a letter every other month to the director of the Iowa Department of Corrections to try to persuade him to let him do an online master’s program. “No one ever accused me of not being persistent,” he said. 

That eventually paid off. With support from state corrections officials and the prison administrators, Pippins was allowed to purchase a thumb drive to download course lectures and assignments, and eventually a laptop, Pippins said. He was able to do the virtual internship with Professor Nettleton with support from the warden.  

Pippins filed his request for clemency in July 2020, but the pandemic delayed his hearing with the Prisoner Review Board until September 2021. 

In the meantime, Pippins began applying to doctoral programs. The University of Iowa accepted him for fall 2021. When his hearing was delayed, the university granted him a deferral for one year. But he’ll lose his spot if he doesn’t hear from Gov. Pritzker soon. 

Down to the wire

Clemency is Pippins’s only option for getting out of prison early. 

Like many prisoners, he’s already gotten time knocked off his sentence for having a clean disciplinary record. He served 18.5 of his 25-year sentence in Iowa and was expected to serve 11 of his 22-year sentence in Illinois.

Illinois also gives credit for participating in programming. Pippins had his sentence reduced by a year for his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees. That leaves him with nearly four years left to serve.

But Illinois is one of 16 states where there’s no discretionary parole for early release. That’s why Pippins has to rely on the governor.

Two independent attorneys say Pippins has a strong case for clemency given his educational accomplishments behind bars and the fact that no one is formally objecting to his petition. He’s also already served the vast majority of his sentence, and he’ll be on parole for the first three years if he gets out early. 

Pippins’s application includes letters of support from professors, correctional officers, and his incarcerated peers. Telly Nix, who is in prison with Pippins, wrote that he always tells Pippins, “‘Bro, if they don’t let you out it is because they don’t let people out. No one has done more to prove they are worthy than you, get ready to go live your dream Dr. Pippins.’”

“Clemency is a political decision made by a political actor. Clemencies slow down right before elections.”

Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project

But Pippins’s achievements and personal transformation may not be enough to speed up the process. Johnson, the attorney, said she advises her clients to expect to wait up to two years for a response after their hearing. For Pippins, that could leave him waiting until September 2023.

Politics matter, too. Ina R. Silvergleid, a former Illinois employment attorney who tracks Illinois clemency data, said that although Pritzker, a Democrat, has exercised his clemency power much more than his recent predecessors, the timing is not in Pippins’s favor. The governor is up for re-election in November.

“Clemency is a political decision made by a political actor,” Soble said. “Clemencies slow down right before elections.”

Earlier this year, clemency hearings in Illinois were put on hold after state senators rejected two of Pritzker’s nominees to the Prisoner Review Board. The governor has also recently faced backlash for other pardons he’s issued for people who were charged with serious crimes.

From January to October 2020, Silvergleid estimated that Pritzker approved roughly one-third of commutation requests. He commuted 49 prison sentences in 2020, 22 in 2021, and none so far in 2022, according to data obtained by Open Campus from the Prisoner Review Board. 

Pritzker’s press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh, did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding Pippins’s application. In a statement to Capitol News Illinois regarding another clemency decision, she said: “The governor is a strong believer in criminal justice reform and that means carefully and thoughtfully considering petitions for clemency from those who have demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation.”

When sorry isn’t enough

Every year that passes becomes more urgent for Pippins. At 52, he has started to think about his own mortality. “As a Black male in America, at the age I am now, I don’t have that many viable working years left,” he said.

For those in prison, every year spent behind bars decreases a person’s life expectancy by two years. A recent study found that Black people who were incarcerated were 65% more likely to die prematurely than their white counterparts. 

Pippins hopes to become a professor, but that will take time. The median time to finish a doctorate in the social sciences is 9.3 years, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. If Pippins were released now, he could be close to 62 years old by the time he receives his Ph.D. 

Pippins can’t ask the university for another extension. Admitted graduate students are only allowed to defer for one year, after which they must reapply, a University of Iowa spokesperson said. If he can’t start this fall, Pippins said he’ll wait until he has a firm release date before he applies again. 

In a recent blog post, Pippins reflected on another clemency decision, where the governor declared that “further incarceration serves no rehabilitative purpose, nor does it advance the interest of justice.” He wonders if his time will come to hear those words. 

For some years, my dilemma has been ‘What does one do when sorry is not enough,’” he wrote in an email. “In seeking that mercy, I come with the all-important words, ‘I’m sorry,’ but too with a bevy of actions that lend some credence to the words I have uttered.”

This story was co-published by WBEZ Chicago. Sign up here for Charlotte’s College Inside newsletter and follow her on Twitter.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.