Shon Hopwood knows what it’s like to get a second chance.
A bank robber sentenced to federal prison, Hopwood later gave his life to Christ and embarked on a new future.
Today, he’s a husband, father and law school student.
On Friday, the former David City resident spoke at the Ninth Annual Fremont Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast, urging listeners to extend grace to others. More than 400 people attended the event in Hopkins Arena at Midland University.
As in past years, the breakfast included prayers, Scripture readings and comments from local leaders.
Hopwood spoke about redemption.
Those who have read Hopwood’s book, “Law Man,” know he was a star high school basketball player, who flunked out of college and spent two years in the U.S. Navy. After that, he and a high school friend decided to rob a bank. Hopwood was caught after five armed bank robberies and sentenced to prison.
While there, he worked in the prison library, writing two successful petitions for other inmates that the U.S. Supreme Court accepted.
These would be only some of the miracles Hopwood experienced. After serving his sentence, Hopwood found a job and married Ann Marie, a young woman from his hometown. He later earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington School of Law, where he is a student.
During his talk, Hopwood spoke about the despair prison inmates experience.
“Going to federal prison is the epitome of hitting rock bottom,” he said. “… Judges, guards and, really, the outside world looks at you as just a prison number and not a human being.
“By contrast, the Gospel of grace says we each have worth, we each have meaning, even though we have each committed our fair share of sins,” he said. “Grace also says that we receive unconditional love regardless of whether or not we deserve it.
“I can stand and tell you, unequivocally, that God extended grace to me long before I became a Christian. He extended grace to me through the love and assistance of others. Without that, I would not be standing here today.”
Hopwood told how his parents, Robert and Rebecca, never gave up on him and that, in 2000, Ann Marie sent him a postcard which would turn into hundreds of letters. Those, combined with her visits, love and caring kept him tethered to the real world.
“She gave me a second chance when few others would and she saw something in me that nobody else did,” he said.
He credited attorney Seth Waxman, former U.S. Solicitor General under President Bill Clinton, who took over -- yet sought his help -- with one of the Supreme Court cases, and mentored him long after it was over.
The second chance Waxman provided led to others, including Hopwood’s job at Cockle Law Brief Printing Co. in Omaha. After applying to several law schools, he later was accepted at the University of Washington.
“I didn’t do this on my own,” he said. “It was second chances and love and grace extended to me not only by God but by other people.”
Hopwood also discussed mass incarceration, which he considers “a human rights disaster in this country.”
“The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world. We incarcerate more people than China even though they have a few more billion people than we do,” he said, noting that the U.S. has 2.3 million people behind bars.
Hopwood said he deserved his punishment and received a fair sentence, but saw many inmates serving decades of imprisonment because they were drug addicts or too poor to afford good attorneys.
He added that it cost this nation $75 billion last year alone to incarcerate people.
Former inmates continue to be punished because they are discriminated against in housing, employment and education opportunities.
Hopwood said mass incarceration destroys families. He cites a row of cells with African American inmates from the same neighborhood, serving 25-year sentences for non-violent drug abuse. The men were set for release about same time he was. Their release should have been cause for joy, but instead brought agony as several of their sons were entering prison.
“That’s what happens when you have a community of children where all of the men are taken out,” he said.
Hopwood believes the best solution to breaking this cycle lies with engaged and empathic people and churches. He encourages Christians to visit their local jails.
“I find that prisoners … people that are at rock bottom, are more receptive to hearing the story of grace than the average person that is caught up in the ballgames and barbecues of life,” he said. “The people I saw that had the most success upon release … were the people that found Jesus Christ while in prison.”
The most important way to help is to pray for ministers and churches that are going into jails and that these prisoners would open their hearts to Jesus.
“Just like me, many of them can be redeemed through Jesus Christ,” he said. “The solution to mass incarceration will happen because of you. It will be your acts of grace, your compassion that gives someone the redemption that Jesus Christ gave each and every one of you and I would encourage you do to so.”