Johnny Pippins will soon celebrate two major milestones: enrolling in a Ph.D. program and getting out of prison.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker commuted Pippins’s sentence for a gang-related murder he committed decades ago. In the next few days, Pippins, 53, is expected to walk out of Iowa’s Anamosa State Penitentiary after more than 26 years behind bars. He will start at the University of Iowa in the fall.

Education has played a central role in Pippins’s life inside, and in his request for clemency.  While he was incarcerated, he used an inheritance from his mother to pay for a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. This is rare among prisoners. He wanted to pursue a doctoral program in sociology, but needed to get out of prison to do it. 

Pippins said he is “chomping at the bit” to go home. “A lot of guys who have served a whole bunch of time are kind of apprehensive and anxious,” he said in a phone call from prison in late April. “But you’re gonna be hard pressed to find someone that is as prepared as I am.”

Pippins got official word this week that his commutation had been signed by the governor’s office.

Pippins has been waiting for news about the outcome of his clemency petition for nearly three years. He originally filed his request in July 2020. In Illinois, petitions for clemency – which include both pardons and sentence commutations – are submitted to the Prisoner Review Board, which then makes a confidential recommendation to the governor.

Things like remorse, disciplinary history, and post-release plans are all taken into consideration.

Pippins’s educational accomplishments and aspirations made for a strong application, his lawyer Nate Nieman said. In addition, Pippins had already served the majority of his sentence. His case has raised questions about how big of a role education should play in clemency decisions.

From prison, Pippins received a fully funded offer from the University of Iowa to pursue his doctorate starting in fall 2021, but he had to ask for a one-year deferral when his clemency application stalled. When he still wasn’t out in August 2022, he decided not to apply again until he had a firm release date.

Things changed in March. A representative of the Prison Review Board reached out to Nieman asking whether Pippins would still be able to enroll in the Iowa program.

That was a first for Nieman. In a decade of working on clemency petitions, he said he’s never had the board ask for additional information. 

But Pippins’s case is unusual, Nieman added. “Johnny has done things that would be amazing accomplishments for somebody on the outside, but that on the inside are nearly impossible.”

Pippins reached out to the sociology department at University of Iowa, which expedited a new application for this fall.

With a Ph.D. acceptance in hand, Pippins then submitted a notarized affidavit to the review board attesting that he intended to enroll in graduate school if he was released. Pippins said he was more than happy to sign something promising that “you’re gonna go live your dream.”

That dream is to become a professor. Earning his Ph.D. will take years, even if he finishes more quickly than the average of nearly a decade for a social science degree.

Pippins was convicted of murder and other charges in Illinois and Iowa in 1997 after he and several others embarked on a summer robbery spree in the Quad Cities, four towns that straddle the border of the two states. During a robbery, someone was killed when Pippins shot a lock off a door. He ended up with consecutive sentences in Iowa and Illinois and was expected to serve nearly 30 years behind bars.

Pippins remained in Iowa for the majority of his sentence through an interstate compact, an agreement that allows people in prison to relocate and serve their sentence in another state.

Pippins plans to tour the University of Iowa campus soon. But first, he plans to enjoy a meal of surf and turf at Red Lobster and catch up with friends and family on the new cell phone his daughter bought him.

He also has another milestone to look forward to: His daughter is getting married in September. He had hoped to earn some money to give her a wedding gift, but she told him that the most important thing to her was that he would be there to walk her down the aisle.

This story was co-published by WBEZ Chicago. Sign up here for Charlotte’s newsletter, College Inside.

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