During a break in a basketball game to raise money for charity, Shon Hopwood told some of his Georgetown law students it felt different than the last time he was on a court: When he played basketball in federal prison, he had to carry a shank in case his team started to lose.
His students laughed. He ran back onto the law-school court — and sank the winning shot.
Hopwood’s new job as a tenure-track faculty member at the Georgetown University Law Center is only the latest improbable twist in a remarkable life: In the last 20 years, he has robbed banks in small towns in Nebraska, spent 11 years in federal prison, written a legal petition for a fellow inmate so incisive that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, done that again, earned undergraduate and law degrees and extremely competitive clerkships, written a book, married his hometown crush and started a family.
But this could be his most compelling role yet. His time in prison gave him a searing understanding of the impact of sentencing and the dramatic growth in incarceration in the United States, an unusual perspective on the law that allows him to see things other lawyers overlook. And he takes the job at a time when criminal-justice issues have real urgency, from lawmakers to protesters to students.
“It’s one of the big social-justice issues of our time,” he said. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. “Between prison, jail, home confinement, probation, parole, combined it’s about 10 million people. It’s a big number.” And almost three-quarters of released prisoners are back in custody five years later. He hopes to change some of that.
“The story’s still writing itself,” he said in his office recently, marveling while students hurried to class outside. “I feel like I’m living someone else’s life quite often these days.”
Shon Hopwood’s life didn’t start out as remarkable. It began with a happy childhood in a town of 2,500 people in Nebraska. His dad managed a cattle feed yard and his parents helped found a church. He was friendly and well-liked, uninterested in school, and best known for his skill on the basketball court.
An athletic scholarship to college ended when he got kicked out for not going to class. After two years in the U.S. Navy, he drifted back to Nebraska, depressed, drinking, doing some drugs, living in his parents’ basement and working 12-hour shifts on a cattle farm, shoveling manure.
One night his best friend turned to him in a bar and suggested that they rob a bank.
In August 1997, Hopwood walked into a bank, sweating, heart racing, dropped a metal toolbox to the floor with a bang and pulled a rifle from his coveralls. With the terrified customers and tellers locked into a vault he sped away with $50,000 of other…