Shon Hopwood was basically a good kid whose life became a case study in bad decisions. As a young man, he was so bored that when a friend drunkenly suggested a bank heist, “[T]he world was newly framed in that instant,” and off they went. They didn’t stop at one bank, robbing five before his eventual arrest. Sentenced to a dozen years in federal prison at only 23 years old, he worked out relentlessly and worked hard at his job in the prison law library. Knowledge is power, and Hopwood became useful to fellow inmates by helping them with legal questions. When asked to file a petition with the Supreme Court—a hail Mary move for a trained lawyer, much less a prisoner—the results changed his life course forever.

Law Man is a prison memoir and a story of redemption, and Hopwood would be the first to point out how seldom those two things combine. While his own story moves from bleak to fairy-tale fantastic so swiftly you half-expect the inmates to line up and start singing “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” behind him, he notes in a sobering aside that the system’s initial goal of rehabilitation has been abandoned. Prison is now a multi-billion dollar business with a dirt-cheap labor force that is overwhelmingly African-American. That his legal help shortened a few of their sentences is small comfort, but Hopwood’s own transformation is both moving and inspiring.

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