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Should college be the bar for clemency?

Illustration by Emily Forschen for Open Campus. Photos courtesy of Johnny Pippins and Fortepan Iowa.

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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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To get a Ph.D., he has to get out of prison

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

Now, education is at the center of Pippins’s petition for clemency. He has served 26 years for murder, and he’s asking the Illinois governor to release him four years early so he can start a Ph.D. program in August.

He received a fully funded offer from the University of Iowa to pursue a doctorate in sociology but he would have to attend in person.

Since he’s been in prison, Pippins has earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, paying for his higher education with inheritance from his mother.

“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 told Charlotte West, who wrote about Pippins in a story we co-published this week with WBEZ Chicago.

Who’s deserving?

Clemency petitions, Charlotte wrote, must address two main questions: Why are you in need of the relief? Why do you deserve relief? For Pippins, the answer to both is his education.

His academic credentials clearly help demonstrate the depth of his intellectual engagement and his involvement in programming — some of the factors the Illinois Prisoner Review Board considers when weighing clemency applications — Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, told Charlotte. (The review board makes confidential recommendations to the governor on petitions like Pippins’s.)

But how much should a college degree matter in weighing someone’s fate?

Putting too much emphasis on a formal education is problematic, Soble said. Access to education can be challenging because many prisoners, especially those with long sentences, are often excluded from most or all opportunities. And it’s a narrow view, she said, of the kinds of accomplishments that deserve recognition.

“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.”

Pippins, in fact, 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.” 

—Sara Hebel

+ Read Charlotte’s story. And sign up for her newsletter, College Inside.

Our new data reporter in Florida

Ian Hodgson

Welcome to Ian Hodgson, who joins our local network as the new education data reporter for our newest partner, the Tampa Bay Times. We’ll be working with both Ian and Divya Kumar, who covers colleges for the Times, on this busy beat for the state.

Ian, who started in the job this week, previously covered health and the environment for the Times.

“College campuses reflect the communities in which they are situated and act as a pressure cooker for debate,” Ian says. “There’s no better example of that than Florida universities.”

The state’s colleges, he says, sit at the center of a lot of Florida’s most-pressing issues. He says he’s looking forward to digging into questions about equity, access, and what happens to academic inquiry when the governor wants to do away with tenure.

“I also love working with data,” Ian says, “and education is a gold mine of numbers.”

Elsewhere on Open Campus

The first summer home from college can be just as foreign an experience to first-generation students as the first semester.

In First Gen, Zipporah Osei shares advice about how to survive your family as a first-gen student: Communicate your feelings. Keep them informed. Be empathetic.

In Mile Markers, Nick Fouriezos explores how cafeteria workers, coaches, and bus drivers (among others) are being trained as advisers to help with counselor shortages in rural schools.

From Colorado, Jason Gonzales reports on how the pandemic has upended college-going.

From Pittsburgh, Emma Folts writes about Carnegie Mellon’s plans for an even denser campus.

In The Intersection, Naomi Harris examines what responsibility a college has to change when its student population changes.

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