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Former Illinois Prisoner Pursuing PhD After 27 Years of Incarceration

When Illinois prisoner J. Le’Dell Pippins, 54, defied the odds to gain acceptance into the University of Iowa’s Ph.D. in Criminology program, it proved a key factor in the decision by Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) to commute Pippins’ 30-year murder sentence in May 2023.

Pippins, who goes by “Dell,” originally filed his clemency petition in July 2020. In Illinois, such a petition—whether for a pardon or a sentence commutation—is submitted to the state Prisoner Review Board, which then makes a confidential recommendation to the governor. Remorse, disciplinary history and post-release plans are all considered.

Pippins was more than ready: He had a support network; he owned a house with his wife, Tracy, a retired nurse whom he married in 2007; and he had been accepted to the doctoral program in criminology with full funding and a job as a graduate teaching assistant when classes started in fall 2023.

Despite that solid post-release plan, Pippins admitted struggling with the challenges of re-entry after long-term incarceration. Even though he had earned two degrees behind bars, he still had to relearn navigating basic tasks like getting a driver’s license and securing health insurance—all while grappling with the emotional weight of missed milestones like his daughter’s wedding and the birth of his granddaughter.

Academia outside prison also presented challenges. Used to the structured environment of prison education, Pippins at first struggled with the looser format of his Ph.D. program. He also faced microaggressions, like being singled out at the health center due to his prison medical history. But he brings real-world experience to discussions on race and crime in his classes. Classmate Joanna Frazier says Pippins’ lived experience offers a necessary perspective often missing in academia.

“Now, I just finished my first semester of a Ph.D.,” the former prisoner said. “And I’m home.”  


Source: Open Campus

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