A Prisoner and a Ph.D.
What do we owe those who have paid their debt?
Last week, I received an email that gave me cause for both hope and despair. It was sent on behalf of an incarcerated man named Johnny Pippins. In the 1990s, he was convicted of a serious crime. He was a gang member, and he doesn’t deny taking part in the offenses for which he was sentenced to prison.
He’s now been incarcerated for nearly a quarter century. In that time, Johnny has done something remarkable with his life. He left the gang he was a part of and became a mentor and teaching assistant in the education programs available to him and other inmates. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in statistical science. He obtained a coveted academic internship. And now, most recently, he’s earned admission to a Ph.D. program in sociology.
I’ve written extensively on the problem of mass incarceration in this country. Too often, our prisons act as human warehouses rather than the centers for rehabilitation they purport to be. Despite that failing, Johnny sounds like he has rehabilitated himself and then some. It’s hard enough to achieve the things he has achieved under ordinary conditions. Doing so while incarcerated must have required extraordinary drive, effort, and focus.
As you’ll read below, Johnny’s academic career—the path he has worked so hard to carve out for himself—is now under threat because his parole hearing has been continually delayed. It seems to me that, at the very least, his case deserves a timely hearing.
We sometimes refer to incarceration as “paying a debt to society,” as though locking a person in a cell was itself a benefit to the community. Perhaps it can be sometimes. But Johnny has an opportunity to contribute more than just his time. Through hard work and study, he’s turned himself into a resource with great potential value. It would be a shame if that value were never realized. The criminal justice system told Johnny Pippins that he owes a debt to society; he ought to be allowed to repay it.
Here is his (very lightly edited) message to me, in full.
Dear Dr. Loury,
Some years ago I sent you a copy of a rough draft of my book (it was more rough than it was a draft), as I was interested in you writing the foreword for it. I eventually set aside the work of writing my book for a while as I took on a more important undertaking: my education. However, that is not my reason for writing to you today.
In fact, I am writing you because of your book, Race, Incarceration, and American Values. I have read this book several times and cited it even more. I guess that it convinced me that you give a damn about prison and criminal justice reform, and further could perhaps appreciate avoiding diminishing returns.
I have been incarcerated for nearly 25 consecutive years, and at this point I have a little over five years remaining. I am writing you because I, a street kid from the South Side of Chicago (Harvey), just got admitted into a Ph.D. program with a five-year funding package. This is not distance learning like my other degrees that I will tell you about shortly. They expect me to be on campus by August 18th and preferably out of prison by August 1st. However, COVID-19 continues to disrupt lives, and the Illinois Prisoner Review Board has cancelled the July hearings, as they have cancelled all of the other hearings for the past year and a half.
Neither I nor any of my relatives can get a letter or email past [Illinois] Governor J.B. Pritzker's aides to petition him directly. I was hoping that, with your Northwestern University connections, you might be able to, and that you would be inclined to do such if I told you some of my story and convinced you that I was worth spending a phone call on.
My childhood and teenage years were split between Harvey and Davenport, Iowa, which is right down the street from Iowa City. (I mention Iowa City because the University of Iowa is the school that has admitted me.) But mostly, just like everyone else from my neighborhood, I have spent my life incarcerated. Even though that is the case, I will spend the bulk of this correspondence telling you some of the positive things that I have been doing with my life over the past 25 years.
In the summer of 1996, at age 26, I was arrested in Harvey for a crime spree that I had taken part in in the metro area of Iowa and Illinois known as the Quad Cities. I was charged, along with my brother and eventually three others, with robbing other drug dealers. One of those robberies resulted in the accidental shooting death of one of the dealers who had formerly been a friend.
I was the only one to go to trial in either state, and as a result I received a sentence four to six times longer than any of my codefendants. After the two trials, I was ordered to serve a total of 30 years and five months for the two states. My co-defendants in both states served terms ranging from four and a half to seven and a half years. My current parole date is February of 2027. I have served nearly 25 years, and I have approximately five years and nine months remaining.
At age 12, living where I did in Harvey, I became a member of the Traveling Vice Lords, mostly to survive. However, that changed in 2004. After 23 years of affiliation I stood before a group in the prison's rec area and respectfully relinquished my membership. I was prepared for what was supposed to have followed. If that was the path to life renewed, I was willing to go through with it. However, they heard me out and let me walk peacefully away.
Some several months after that incident, I began to correspond with the woman that I would eventually marry in 2007. She reintroduced me to my boyhood passion: reading books and writing. I was a bit of an oddball in my Chicago neighborhood. The early years spent in Iowa were apparent in my diction and enunciation, as well as in my love of baseball and skateboarding. But I loved books most of all. When I got my library card, it was like Christmas every day.
In 2010, my mother died. She had been suffering from lupus. I then began my pursuit of my bachelor's degree. I also worked as a mentor and a math TA at the facility's branch of the community college for the high school equivalency program.
In 2013, and in less than four years, I graduated cum laude with a B.A. in sociology from Adams State University.
In 2018, after completing some prerequisite courses, I was admitted to the University of Idaho's online master's degree program in statistical science.
In 2019, I was offered an internship through the acclaimed Baker Center for Bioinformatics and Biological Statistics, and I accepted. The internship concerned applying statistical methods to discover genes differentially expressed among patients with different types of lupus. (You can read about it here.)
In 2020, after reaching the milestone of 5,000 hours of instructing in the subjects of Algebra II and Elementary Statistics, I received an award from the education department.
On Saturday May 14, 2021, I was conferred the degree of Master's of Science in Statistics.
On April 7, 2021, I was fully admitted into the University of Iowa's sociology Ph.D. program. This admission comes with a five-year funding package that includes a TA position, a guaranteed salary, tuition remission, and health insurance. Just days ago I learned from the director of graduate studies for the mathematics department that I would be able to pick up an additional master's degree in math along the way. While I absolutely intend to be a professor, I love research and writing.
This program and job begin August 18th. As I stated above, it is not a distance learning program. All of these accomplishments gave me, my wife, and my daughters hope that what my attorney was saying was true: that I am the ideal candidate for clemency and having my final five years pardoned.
This led to me writing to you.
For more than a year the Illinois Prisoner Review Board has not had hearings because of COVID. To our surprise and utter dismay, they have even cancelled the upcoming July hearing. This, even though the state’s COVID numbers are headed in the right direction and the hearing is two months out, suggesting that things are only going to get better. I and many members of my family have written to to the governor’s office, but all of the correspondence is intercepted by aides and rerouted to the review board before it can reach the governor.
Given your position, your connection to Northwestern (something you have in common with the governor), and your success, I am writing to you in hopes that you or someone you know can intervene with the governor’s office on my behalf.
I am on the cusp of going from gang member to doctor. A kid from the South Side, a kid from 153rd & Lexington, admitted to Iowa's Ph.D. program. I am almost there. I just need a little help, and any that you can give would be appreciated. I have taken the liberty of attaching both the email and the offer letter so that you can review them.
Some people show up asking for donations, I am asking for phone calls so that I can make my own way in life after having been incarcerated for the majority of it. Thank you.
"One of those robberies resulted in the accidental shooting death of one of the dealers who had formerly been a friend" seems remarkably evasive. He doesn't seem to take responsibility. It was a "robbery" that "resulted" in an "accidental shooting death." No, someone killed the man.
Congratulations Johnny for have turned around your life and for reaching an amazing academic milestone! You have the power to be a beacon in black communities and to show young men that there are alternatives in life that will bring happiness and value to their community.