By all accounts, Shon Hopwood was “a good kid from a good Nebraskan family,” but after high school he grew bored. By the age of 22, he had dropped out of college, spent two years in the Navy, then found himself back in his sleepy hometown, drinking and using drugs to help quell the boredom. When that didn’t work, he started robbing banks. He knocked over five, in fact, before the FBI caught him with a stash of guns and $100,000 in easily-traceable bills.
“I wanted to live an exciting life,” Hopwood told CBS “60 Minutes” reporter Steve Kroft, “and shoveling cow manure in small-town Nebraska and living in my parents’ bedroom wasn’t quite cutting it.”
He thought his life was over. But instead of wasting away in prison, Hopwood turned his life around; he not only survived but found that spark he had been looking for in the unlikeliest of places: the prison law library.
As he recounted to Kroft during the “60 Minutes” profile that aired October 15, 2017, at first he was intimidated by the books he perused, then something clicked and he began seeing casework as a fascinating puzzle. At the same time, Hopwood saw first-hand the significant harm that can befall prisoners due to legal mistakes, so he began helping fellow inmates with their appeals.
In 2003 – five years into his prison sentence – he wrote an appeal for an inmate and sent it to the Supreme Court. Of the 8,000 petitions filed that year, 74 were accepted by the highest court in the land, and Hopwood’s was among them. The skeptics who chalked it up to a fluke became converts when it happened a second time.
When he got out, Hopwood earned a law degree, passed the bar exam, and began a clerkship with the US court of appeals for D.C.
Now, as a newly-minted associate professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, and with a wife and two children, he’s living a life he could never have dreamed of 20 years ago.
But he’s quick to point out that he didn’t turn his life around because of prison — he did so in spite of it — and that’s the critical message he wants to impart.
“Prison is not the place for personal growth,” he explained. “We warehouse people and then we kick them out into the real world with very little support, and hope that a miracle happens.”
With this new, full life, it would be easy for Hopwood to disassociate himself with the prison community. Instead, he is using his story to help the American public understand the need for prison reform. He is also one of many who, through Prison Professors, which he co-founded, are providing assistance with preparing defendants and supporting lawyers to improve outcomes.
“We hope to show the country that redemption for prisoners is possible if they are given educational and life skills resources while incarcerated,” he said.
Hopwood’s event is co-sponsored by the School of Law’s Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series.
Hopwood’s memoir, “Law Man” will be available for purchase at the book signing immediately following his presentation.
Watch Hopwood’s segment on C-SPAN.
Learn more about Prison Professors.
The Washington University Prison Education Project brings Wash U faculty to the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center to help prisoners prepare for life after they are released https://source.wustl.edu/2015/02/odysseus-in-pacific/