When Shon Hopwood's high-school basketball career faded and his college and military prospects fell through, his lack of purpose left him susceptible to addiction and depression.
His best friend suggested they rob a bank, and he agreed.
"It struck me as a legitimate idea," he recalls.
"We robbed five banks, with guns, and scared the tellers and patrons half to death. I knew it was wrong. Still, I couldn't stop the easy money and party lifestyle that large sums of unearned money brought me."
It didn't stop until they were arrested by the FBI in a hotel in Omaha.
"A year later, I stood with shaky legs and a trembling spirit before a federal judge, who sentenced me to more than 12 years in federal prison. I was 23."
No one who knew the friendly Nebraskan teen whose parents had started a local church could have predicted this turn of events; but no one at all could have predicted the turn Shon's life would take in prison.
To escape the men around him, Shon took a job in the prison law library shelving books. He began reading them and soon found that he really enjoyed the process of solving legal puzzles for his friends.
"I took on fellow prisoners' cases, writing petitions they would then file in federal courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The odds of the Court hearing a case brought by a prisoner is less than one percent of a percent. And yet, the Court granted two petitions I had prepared for my friends. Fellow prisoners began calling me a 'jailhouse lawyer'," Shon recalls.
Another good thing that happened at that time was that Annie, a girl he had had a secret crush on all through high school, began sending him letters, and through hundreds of letters, phone calls, and visits, they became close friends.
Shon expected his parents to abandon him after the embarrassment he had put them through but they continued to love and pray for him and his mother sent him many Christian books.
"I wasn't quite ready for God, but I also couldn't rationalize the transformation I'd seen in the lives of my fellow prisoners," Shon admits.
One especially stunning example of a life changed by Jesus was Shon's next cell-door neighbor, Robert, who was serving a 20-year sentence for a non-violent drug offense.
Initially, Robert was full of bitterness, always grumbling about what he was missing out on and ranting about the man who had testified against him, wishing him dead.
"One day I walked over to Robert's cell and watched as he smiled and danced around while sweeping the floor. My first thought was that he had scored some drugs. But when I asked why he seemed so different, I was unprepared for his response. 'Shon, I'm with Jesus now,' he said."
Within days Robert had forgiven the man who had testified against him. Today he is back on his farm with his family, and once a week he goes back into prison to lead a men's Bible study.
"Robert was neither the first nor the last prisoner I saw experience a complete and utter life turnaround. These inmates had a great effect on me because I saw how grace (God's undeserved love) can transform everyone, even prisoners—perhaps especially prisoners," confesses Shon.
"I was finding it harder and harder to rationalize myself away from God."
Shon was released after nearly 11 years and found a position at a printer of Supreme Court briefs in Omaha, helping attorneys perfect their briefs.
He and Annie got engaged and it was during their premarital counselling course that Shon was challenged about grace, God's free gift of salvation and being forgiven.
He came to understand that "because of our sins, none of us can be redeemed on our own. We need the gospel of grace, which says that each of us matters and has worth because we're made in the image of God. Grace says we are not defined by our failures and our faults, but by a love without merit or condition."
Shon went on to have two children with Annie, study law on a full scholarship and is now a clerk for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
"Through it all, God loved us. Through it all, God has given us a purpose. For me that purpose revolves around repentance, loving my wife and children, sharing the grace I've been given, and using my legal knowledge to assist those who cannot afford a decent attorney," Shon concludes. •
Shon's autobiography was published in 2012