A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Last week, we co-published a story I wrote with Jason Gonzales, my colleague at our local partner, Chalkbeat Colorado. We highlight the work of one of the first incarcerated professors in the country, David Carrillo, who teaches incarcerated students in an undergraduate business program for Adams State University. He makes the same salary as any adjunct teaching on campus. At the end of December, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis commuted Carrillo’s sentence of life without parole, citing his educational and professional accomplishments. 
  • We also published a first-person essay by Leo Hylton, an incarcerated graduate student in Maine who stepped out of the prison gate for the first time in more than a decade for an unusual reason: to meet his students on the campus of Colby College.

The subject of a my latest story — David Carrillo, an incarcerated professor who’s teaching incarcerated students at Adams State University in Colorado — was granted clemency at the end of December. It was an exciting moment: Right before signing off for the holidays, I got a text from the director of Adams State’s prison education program: DAVID GOT CLEMENCY!!!

I wanted to take a moment to talk about the role that education plays in clemency decisions. In the case of Carrillo — who was serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a 1993 murder he participated in as a 19-year-old — educational and professional accomplishments played a role. Serving an LWOP sentence meant that clemency from Gov. Polis was the only way that Carrillo would ever get out of prison. 

I’ve previously written about Johnny Dell Pippins’ fight for clemency in Illinois. Pippins waited for more than two years, through the pandemic and an election year, for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to commute his nearly 30-year sentence in order to start a PhD at the University of Iowa. Illinois is one of 16 states that abolished parole over the last several decades in favor of determinate sentencing, meaning that there are few options to get out of prison early except through executive action. 

Clemency includes both pardons, which forgives a crime, and commutations, which reduces someone’s sentence. Education can play a big role in both clemency and parole decisions, but there are some inherent issues of equity and access. Many people with long sentences are often excluded from most or all educational opportunities, while others are incarcerated at facilities that offer little in the way of programming. Those who are able to do things like earn graduate degrees — like Carrillo and Pippins — often have support from family to help pay for those programs, which in turn give them a leg-up in the clemency or parole review process. 

I talked to Jennifer Soble, an attorney and executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, a nonprofit focused on getting people out of prison, about this when I first covered Pippins’ case two years ago. “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 at the time. 

Pippins — who got out last May after receiving clemency from Pritzker in time to start his doctorate in criminology last fall — was also concerned about this issue. On a phone call from prison, before he got news of his own commutation, he said was concerned that if being accepted into a PhD from prison became the bar to get clemency, “a lot of worthy people will be left behind.” 

But sometimes even being the first to do something unheard of behind bars isn’t enough. Clemency decisions are ultimately at the discretion of governors and presidents. Republican Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s first woman governor, has not issued a single commutation since she took office in 2017. She has systematically rejected clemency applications from lifers, despite favorable recommendations from the state’s parole board. As of 2020, Iowa had around 1,500 people serving life or virtual life sentences (around 18% of the state’s entire prison population), including Mary “Kathy” Tyler, who has earned multiple degrees and continued to take college classes well into her eighth decade.

In Maine, Brandon Brown became the first person in the state to earn an advanced degree behind bars. In 2020, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills denied Brown’s petition for clemency without explanation. 

So what made Pippins a good case for clemency but not Brown? Illinois and Maine are both among the 16 states that don’t have parole for most people in prison, both states have Democratic governors, and both men had earned master’s and been accepted into doctoral programs. The truth is, we don’t really know much about how those clemency decisions were made. 

In most states, there’s little transparency or accountability in either clemency or parole board proceedings. Last year, Beth Schwartzapfel of The Marshall Project, reported and hosted Violation, a podcast that looks at the country’s opaque parole system through Jacob Wideman’s 1986 murder case in Arizona. She documents how parole has become an inherently political process, with governors appointing individuals who are given the monumental task of predicting whether or not someone will reoffend. 

Parole boards are ill-equipped to provide meaningful individualized review and have little incentive to release people who committed serious offenses, according to a 2016 report from the ACLU. In at least 30 states, the severity of the crime is a factor that parole boards must consider, even though it’s something that the individual seeking parole can’t change. 

Parole boards look at what people have done — both their crimes and their rehabilitative activities inside. But there’s little consideration for what they haven’t been able to do because of lack of opportunity. And the original crime — which the person is already serving a prison sentence for — might weigh more heavily than anything educational they’ve accomplished behind bars.

Education can also play a role in sentence reduction through “earned time” — also known as “good time” — where people can shave time off their sentences for earning a degree or other credential. My colleague Jason, for instance, met Carrillo’s cellmate Sean Mueller, who will be one of the first incarcerated people in Colorado to get a year off his sentence for completing an associate’s degree. In Illinois, Pippins had his sentence reduced by a year for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Finally, access to education might help people prepare for the clemency or parole process. I’ve had multiple people inside tell me they first started studying, sometimes on their own, in order to understand the words their lawyers were saying. In response to a recent LinkedIn post, one man said that education helped him “articulate his remorse.” Another wrote that his college classes helped him hone the writing skills he needed to confidently prepare his legal documents. 

Looking critically at the role of education in helping people get out of prison should not downplay the impressive educational achievements of people like Carrillo and Pippins. But  becoming one of the first incarcerated professors in the country, or getting into a PhD program from behind bars, is out of reach for most people in prison. The extent to which these become the metric for clemency — or for parole — raises questions about issues of equity for the millions of people inside who didn’t have access to the same opportunities. 

Colorado becomes one of the first to employ an incarcerated professor

Like his students, David Carrillo also wears green. (Rachel Woolf for Chalkbeat)

On a late-November afternoon, at the head of a cramped classroom, David Carrillo stood at a small podium and quizzed 17 students on macroeconomic terminology.

For the two-hour class, Carrillo, the adjunct professor teaching for Adams State University, mostly kept his hands in his pockets as he lectured students in green uniforms, some bright and others faded with time. 

Like his students at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, Carrillo, 49, also wears green. He holds a position that is extremely rare in prison: He’s an incarcerated professor teaching in a prison bachelor’s degree program.

A new initiative at Adams State — one of the first of its kind in the country — focuses on employing incarcerated people with graduate degrees as college professors, rather than bringing in instructors from the outside.

Read the full story here

Related: ++“We need more high-impact practices in prison.”
++ “How a new law will help incarcerated Coloradans reduce their sentence through a college education.”

Incarcerated people are rarely hired for outside jobs. A teaching gig changed my life.

Colby College. (Photo: Shutterstock)

“Hey Hylton, they want you in receiving. You’re heading out on some sort of trip,” the officer tells me from the door of my cell. “You know where you’re going, I assume?”

It’s April 2022 and I haven’t left the prison gates since 2010. I have no more appeals, no post-conviction review left to apply for. Unless I need to go to the hospital for something, I shouldn’t see the other side of these prison walls for at least another 26 to 28 years —a nd that’s if I get every day of my good time.

On this beautiful spring day, I head down to the area of the prison where new people enter the system, get their picture taken for their ID, and are given prison-issued clothing and a plastic tote to store their belongings. I meet two men I have never seen before, who are to be my transport team. In short order, I’m stripping down to my birthday suit, having each article of my clothing searched before being handed back to me. 

My mouth won’t stop smiling. Hobblers on my legs, belly chain getting placed around my waist and affixed to the handcuffs on my wrists, the fugitive investigator is chuckling and shaking his head, saying, “You’re just giddy, aren’t you?”

“You better believe it! I get to see my students today!” 

Read the rest of Leo Hylton’s essay here.

Related: ++ “Pursuing a PhD from Prison.”

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org or on TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

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