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Johnny Dell Pippins holding student ID and inmate ID at the University of Iowa

Johnny Le’Dell Pippins shows his student ID from the University of Iowa alongside his prisoner ID card from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Pippins received clemency from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker in May 2023 to start his Ph.D. program in criminology at the University of Iowa in August.

Grace Smith

After 27 years in prison, a 54-year-old is now getting his Ph.D.

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 Pippins was serving for 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.

Returning home can be especially difficult for people who have spent decades behind bars. They may have lost touch with friends or family. After a lifetime disconnected from society, they have to immediately get to work finding a place to live and locking down a job. Formerly incarcerated people take an average of more than six months to find their first job after release, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank opposed to mass incarceration.

In contrast, 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.

J. Le’Dell Pippins posing for portrait on college campus

Ph.D. student Johnny Le’Dell Pippins on the Pentacrest at the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Dec. 4, 2023.

Grace Smith

Still, Pippins, who goes by “Dell,” 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.

A drug robbery gone bad, then an overwhelming fresh start

In 1996, Pippins unintentionally killed someone during a spree of drug-related robberies that led to prison sentences in both Illinois and Iowa.

He started his college education behind bars in 2010, when, after his mother died, he was able to use his inheritance to pay for classes. Pippins earned his bachelor’s degree from Adams State University in Colorado via correspondence, using the U.S. Postal Service to send in his assignments. He then enrolled in an online master’s program in statistics at the University of Idaho, receiving rare permission from prison administrators to have limited internet access to download his assignments and video lectures.

In July 2020, while he was finishing his master’s, Pippins submitted a clemency application to Pritzker, asking the governor to commute his sentence in order to continue his education. He waited through the pandemic and an election year before receiving word in May 2023 that Pritzker was using his executive power to let Pippins out of prison in time to start at the University of Iowa in the fall.

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.


Pippins sits with undergraduate Carter Heifner at Pop’s BBQ in Iowa City on Dec. 3, 2023. Pippins was the teaching assistant for Heifer’s class in race, crime and justice last fall.

Charlotte West

Pippins and his wife, Tracy, got married in 2007.

“He always said that he thought he was just going to slide right back in when he got out. He was motivated and had these things he wanted to get done,” said Tracy Pippins, a retired nurse. “But I don’t think that you can really underestimate how long-term incarceration affects people.”

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.

“The dentist got inside my mouth and was like, ‘What the hell? Have you ever had any dental care?’ ” he said.

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 faze her made him feel welcome in his first-year cohort.

Frazier said she knew about Pippins’s incarceration history before he told her, but most people would have no idea about his background.

“When Dell first came to the program, he was actually really quiet. At the same time, when he speaks, it’s usually because he has something that he feels is worth saying,” she said.

Pippins was surprised the Ph.D. program was so unstructured compared with his undergraduate experience. While he has come to enjoy it, he said he initially struggled with not having someone lay out exactly what he was expected to do.

From the prison tower to the ivory tower

Along the way, Pippins has been confronted with reminders of his past in unexpected places.

A few weeks after he was released, he went to the student health center to get a blood test to show proof of a vaccine required by the university. He was told the prison doctor had to be notified about and sign off on any care he received.

Pippins said the health center staff asked him to step into a waiting area and they closed a security door. Then they made a phone call, but he wasn’t sure to whom. He was worried the call was to campus security.

“Am I about to freakin’ get killed? They think I’m going to escape,” he said. “I put my phone and anything that looks like it could be a weapon down.”

The staff eventually figured it out, but in the moment, he said, “I was spooked.”

A spokesperson from the University of Iowa wrote in an email that student health records contain no information about an individual’s incarceration history. The university can’t comment specifically on an individual’s medical history, but the official said most new patients have internal holds on their patient records that require a call to a campus records administrator.

That feeling of not really belonging has crept up in other ways. 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.

He received unexpectedly low grades from one professor. When he went to office hours, the professor told him he needed to focus on the theories they were reading in class.

“We’re writing about criminology, and you want to talk theoretical?” Pippins remembered thinking. “You want to talk about stuff that you learned in the ivory tower. But bro, I’ve been standing under the prison tower for 27 years!”

Dell Pippins in class

Pippins laughs with fellow Ph.D. student Amy Lijewski before a graduate seminar in University of Iowa’s North Hall on Dec. 6, 2023.

Grace Smith

Pippins was heated when he talked about it, and he ended up dropping the class. But as he has reflected back, he’s come to understand that as a scholar he needs to have a grounding in the theory.

It has also reinforced that his time in prison gives him a perspective that many of his classmates and students tell him they value.

“I can’t really imagine how different it must be to sit in on discussions that talk about incarceration from such a distance and almost in a speculative tone,” Frazier said. “He has insights that so many of us, particularly in academia, will never be able to have.”

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.”

Charlotte West is a reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prisons for Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education. Sign up for her newsletter, College Inside.

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