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

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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Today, we are copublishing a story with WBEZ Chicago on Johnny Le’Dell Pippins’s journey from prison to a Ph.D. Last year, Pippins received clemency from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to start his doctoral program at the University of Iowa. Tune into WBEZ at 3:20 pm central or 5:20 pm central to listen to the accompanying audio story airing on All Things Considered. You can listen online at wbez.og.
  • Did you ever wonder how education journalists do their jobs? Join me on Monday, Feb 26 at 1 pm eastern for a listening session with the Unlock Higher Education community to talk about how I cover prison education. I also want to hear from you about what kind of resources we can pull together that would be helpful for your students. You can register here.
  • ICYMI: Last month, we published this story by contributor Ryan Moser about the lack of college programs in Florida prisons – the third largest carceral system in the United States. The story was also recently published by our local partner, Tampa Bay Times.

From the ivory tower to the prison tower

Johnny Le’Dell Pippins was already accepted into a Ph.D. program in criminology at the University of Iowa when he got out of prison last year.

In fact, his admission to the program helped convince Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to commute the 30-year prison sentence he was serving for an unintentional murder. 

Pippins had already earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s while he was incarcerated. He spent more than a decade preparing for the day when he would step out of the prison gates.

Pippins had a solid reentry plan: He had a support network; he owned a house with his wife, Tracy; and he had been accepted to University of Iowa’s doctoral program in criminology with full funding and a job as a graduate teaching assistant lined up when classes started in the fall. 

Still, Pippins has struggled. Although he earned two degrees, he had never set foot on a college campus as a student until he visited the University of Iowa for the first time in the summer of 2023.

Even now as a full-time student, his past feels ever present, such as when his classmates and students continually ask him about life inside. Sometimes he feels like an imposter, made worse by the high expectations he set for himself, he said. And he’s an outlier in other ways, starting his Ph.D. at 54, an age by which many faculty have published books and achieved tenure. 

‘You’re gonna be hard pressed to find someone that is as prepared as I am’

Johnny Le’Dell Pippins laughs with his fellow Ph.D. student Amy Lijewski before a graduate seminar in University of Iowa’s North Hall in Iowa City on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Grace Smith/Open Campus

While he was inside, Pippins said he read about the challenges people have adjusting to society after long-term incarceration. He never wanted to become “institutionalized,” where people function better inside. He did everything he could to maintain some semblance of normalcy: He watched the news, held a steady job in the prison’s education department and maintained strong relationships with family members. 

“You’re gonna be hard pressed to find someone that is as prepared as I am,” he said on a call from prison in April 2023 after receiving news of his clemency. 

After he got out, Pippins had one summer to catch up on decades of things he had missed before diving into his Ph.D. program. He had to get a driver’s license, sign up for health insurance, buy a new wardrobe and visit doctors and dentists after three decades of prison health care. 

There were lots of little things that had changed. He was overwhelmed, for example, by the choice of streaming services when he just wanted to watch basketball. There were the big things, too, like meeting his 4-month-old granddaughter and walking his daughter down the aisle after 27 years apart. 

When he started classes in August, he was especially eager to connect with his peers after so many years of going it alone. His classmate Joanna Frazier was the first one he told about his time in prison. He said the fact that it didn’t seem to phase her made him feel welcome in his first-year cohort. 

Pippins is not only one of the few Black men on a campus that is around 75% white, but also the only student he knows who is formerly incarcerated. It has sometimes been a challenge for him to sit through lectures on race and crime that seem in stark contrast to his lived experience. 

It has also reinforced that his time in prison gives him a perspective that many of his classmates and students tell him they value. And it’s in his peers that Pippins has finally found the intellectual community he sought after so many years of studying by himself in his cell. 

“You know where the hell I’m from? I’m from the Southwest Side of Chicago. And I acted like it for a long time — at least what I thought that was supposed to be,” he said. “Now, I just finished my first semester of a Ph.D. And I’m home.”

Read the full story here

“Illinois’ governor is letting this man out of prison after 26 years so he can earn his Ph.D.”
“Education often plays a big role in clemency decisions. Should it?”
“Pursuing a Ph.D. from prison.”

News & views

  • California is continuing to expand its four-year degree programs offered inside prisons across the state. Cal Poly Humboldt‘s bachelor’s in communication at Pelican Bay State Prison was the first prison education program in the nation to be approved by the federal Education Department to use Pell Grants since eligibility for the federal financial aid was restored for incarcerated students last summer. The first cohort started in January with 16 students. Incarcerated students at the Norco California Rehabilitation Center will be also able to earn a bachelor’s in education, society, and human Development from University of California Riverside beginning in fall 2024. The program will be offered to roughly 25 students. University of California Davis has also recently established Underground Scholars, a support program for system-impacted students. 
  • The Brookings Institution invited four experts to weigh in on how states are balancing accountability goals while ensuring incarcerated students have equitable access to high-quality instructional programs with the return of Pell Grants: Erin Castro of the University of Utah; Marc Howard, of Georgetown University; and Laura Ferguson Mimms and Rachel Zolensky of the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative.
  • new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on Alabama’s juvenile justice system found that the state, which as of 2021 had the eighth highest youth incarceration rate in the country, overemphasizes incarceration, even though youth crime rates have declined for decades. School discipline also disproportionately impacts Black children, often leading to referrals to law enforcement. Incarcerating a young person in Alabama for one year in a public facility ($161,694) is more expensive than the annual cost to educate that child in Alabama public schools ($12,092), fund community-based programs ($20,075), and pay for attendance at the University of Alabama and Auburn University combined ($54,672).
  • In an op-ed in the San Francisco ChronicleDavid E. Harding argues that people leaving prison are often pressured to take any job they can find, regardless of schedule, salary or working conditions. As a result, formerly incarcerated people often find themselves in dead-end positions. “Companies need to do more to support formerly incarcerated workers and create internal job ladders. There are also many ways public policy can assist them in their job paths and career trajectories,” he writes. “Our findings suggest that California, and other states open to reform, can help in many ways: through greater housing support, through mental health and substance abuse support and through changes to harmful parole systems that often prioritize surveillance and punishment over reintegration.”
  • Policing on college campuses falls hardest on formerly incarcerated students, leaving them and the broader community unprotected, says Ryan Flaco Rising. In this interview conducted by the editors of Cops on Campus: Rethinking Safety and Confronting Police Violence republished in Inquest, Rising discusses his own experiences and observations of the effect that pervasive campus policing has on formerly incarcerated students. 
  • The Florida Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalism and Prison Journalism Project announced the inaugural SPJ Florida-PJP Stillwater Prison Journalism Awards. The national awards program will honor journalistic excellence in the incarcerated community for work published anywhere in the country in nine categories. Award submissions can be sent online or handwritten by postal mail. The deadline for submissions is March 31, 2024.

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.