Eighteen years ago, Nebraska native Shon Hopwood went to prison for breaking the law. This year, the University of Washington law-school graduate has been hired to teach it.
Hopwood has accepted a position as professor at Georgetown University School of Law. The 2014 graduate of the UW law school had gone to federal prison for 10 years in the late 1990s for robbing five banks in the Midwest.
“I’m probably the only law professor in the country that has seen prison from the inside,” Hopwood said.
At Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., he’ll teach criminal justice to first-year students, and also prison law, which covers the rights that prisoners retain even after they’ve been incarcerated — including the right to medical care and their First Amendment free-speech rights.
Hopwood was a high-school dropout in Nebraska, working a dead-end job, when he hit upon the idea of robbing banks for excitement and money. He was caught, pleaded guilty to the armed robberies, and was sentenced in 1999, a year after his crime spree began.
While serving time he began studying the law and became such an adept jailhouse lawyer that two of his petitions were reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
He attended the UW on a full-ride scholarship through the Gates Public Service Law Program, a $33 million program created in 2005 to honor Bill Gates Sr. by his son, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, and his wife, Melinda.
After he graduated, Hopwood got a job as a law clerk for Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals’ D.C. Circuit. More recently he’s been working with Georgetown’s appellate litigation program, in which he is a teaching fellow, working with students and litigating cases in several different courts of appeals.
His clients are prisoners trying to get a state conviction overturned in appellate court, and they don’t trust lawyers, Hopwood said. But, “I have instant credibility with them.”
In D.C., Hopwood has worked on issues of reform in the criminal-justice system, and he plans to continue that work. He believes that “the entire criminal-justice system needs to be evaluated from top to bottom.”
What needs to change? “It’s the length of sentences and, in the United States, the fact that we lead the world in incarceration rates because we tend to use incarceration as the first response rather than the last response,” he said.
Hopwood said he never would have gone to law school if not for the UW’s law dean, Kellye Testy, who vouched for him and helped him get accepted. Testy is stepping down from the dean position at the end of this academic year.
Hopwood said he feels incredibly fortunate to be where he is today.
“I wake up every morning and think, is this really happening?” he said.