Mississippi

How a lawyer-turned-felon is trying to boost adult education in Mississippi

Dickie Scruggs pushes for ‘Second Chance’ through adult education programs

Dickie Scruggs is working to raise awareness and money for Mississippi adult education programs.

Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs – once heralded as Mississippi’s richest person and one of the nation’s most powerful trial attorneys – made a name for himself by winning multimillion dollar lawsuits against Big Tobacco, the asbestos industry and in Hurricane Katrina lawsuits.

Then, he landed himself in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to bribe a judge in a dispute over attorneys’ fees in 2008. While in prison, he served as a math tutor, working with fellow inmates who were trying to pass GED tests to earn a high school equivalency diploma.

Scruggs says he was inspired by the hard work of some of the inmates – and alarmed that many adults across Mississippi might not have the support needed to earn their diplomas. Scruggs, who was released from prison in March 2014, decided to start Second Chance Mississippi, a nonprofit that will work with the state’s community college system to help adults who have dropped out earn their GEDs, while also receiving workforce training in fields like welding or culinary arts.

As part of his effort, Scruggs is now zig-zagging the state, talking to church groups, civic clubs, senior groups and anyone else who will listen to his message of hope and redemption – both for himself and for the students he wants to serve.

The Hechinger Report spoke to Scruggs about his efforts.

Q: What is the goal of Second Chance Mississippi?

A: We are an advocacy group working to raise awareness and funds for adult education in Mississippi. We are interested in helping people get their GED and then to get skill training that gives people marketable skills that can prepare them for the workforce. Some might study to pass their GED in the morning and then spend their afternoons learning to weld or doing culinary arts – maybe learning HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning).

The idea is to give people good prospects for jobs upon completion. It’s a remarkable concept because it’s gotten more business and industry to buy into it – there is that enthusiasm for workforce development. You talk to people about adult education and they yawn because they don’t necessarily see the benefit. But if you combine it with workforce development they are more interested – they see the benefits.

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Part of the goal, too, is to get churches and community groups to encourage people to return to get their GEDs – and then agree to help provide them with support – what we call wraparound support. That means helping them if they need help having their light bills paid, or they need a computer to be able to do their work – those real financial needs that keep people from finishing.

Q: What would you say to people who might question the sincerity of your efforts, saying this is just as much about rehabilitating your tarnished image as it is helping others?

A: This is part of a rehabilitation of my image – it absolutely is. But more than that, it’s about giving me a sense of purpose – that’s what I lacked when I was in prison. I think it’s ok that it is rehabilitative to me, as long as it’s also helping other people. The primary goal for me isn’t to improve my image.

I like to think that I would be doing this even if I didn’t go to prison. Before I went to prison, I was already getting tired of law. I was looking for some other crusade that wasn’t tied to a legal endeavor. I like to think I would have ended up doing this even if prison hadn’t intervened. I’ve always had a philanthropic mindset. It just happens that being a math tutor in prison is what caused me to see this particular need and why it’s important.

Q: Was teaching a survival strategy for you in prison?

A: The early days in prison were absolutely terrible. I had been abusing pain medicine for several years after I had back surgery. The pain went away but I was still taking the pills – not so I could feel good but so I could feel normal. So I was in prison withdrawing from those, and also dealing with the reality of being in prison.

It was hard to get acclimated. Those first days I was there were soul crushing. When I first got there, other inmates thought I was a child molester. I would sit down at a table to eat and everyone would get up and move. People wouldn’t look me in the eyes. There was hostility. I was embarrassed. I thought it was because they knew I was there for judicial bribery. But later my roommate came up and told me he found out I wasn’t there for cho-mo – what they called child molestation. I said, ‘hell no I’m not!’ But they thought I was because when I first got there, I wouldn’t tell people why I was there. I was just too embarrassed. Once I got the pills out of my system and got to know some people, I felt a little better. I got into a daily routine and that helped. I started helping the other inmates – tutoring and teaching. And I taught a history course people thought was interesting. I created a little life for myself in prison. That helped me to find a sense of purpose. I was just another guy in prison, but by teaching I was able to reestablish myself as a person of value. It was soul-crushing to just be a nobody.”

Q: What were some of the obstacles your tutoring students had to overcome?

There were a lot of them that were just barely smart enough to master the program. They would put in the effort but it was still frustrating when they couldn’t get it. They had never been good students. They were intimidated by it – particularly the math. A lot of them dropped out when they hit ninth grade, so they had a lot of ground to cover. The rules said they were required to be there – all inmates there who didn’t have a high school diploma were supposed to be working on that. But some didn’t want to be there – they didn’t believe that their work could make a difference in their lives. That was a big obstacle – motivation. If you don’t have the motivation and you don’t have the confidence, it’s tough. I had to show a lot of TLC to the new guys. They tried not to seem scared but they were.

Related: Can literacy coaches help solve Mississippi’s education woes?

Q: How do you think you got so off track that you conspired to bribe a judge?

A: That’s a very difficult question for me. I’ve never been able to formulate a satisfactory answer. I think the pills I was taking lowered my defenses. I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I’m not blaming the pills – it was me that made the choice. But in my own soul, even now, I don’t know how I got to the point where I let my own guard down like that and made that kind of a decision. I think maybe I thought I was out there doing good work and trying to help people, and so I was entitled to make a mistake, and if I did make a mistake, I thought I should get a pass. I had really gotten too big for my britches. But I know that’s not really a definitive answer to the question. I think I’m still figuring it out.

Ego was part of it – hubris. I wanted to chase the next big thing. It was a slippery slope. You are only as good as your last case. That weighs on you.

Q: How have you been received in Mississippi since your release?

During my darkest days, I thought I was going to have to leave Mississippi – that I was going to be run out. I got terrible press and I had always gotten pretty good press up until then. I didn’t think I would be able to get service in restaurants. I thought people would cross to the other side of the street when they saw me coming. But this is where my wife Diane comes in. She was incredibly tough during all of this. She was stoic and she kept her head up. She was always involved in civic and religious groups. She was a tremendous ambassador for our family. She made it safe for me to come back. She loves Oxford and Mississippi. I think that she’s the biggest reason we have been able to stay.

My reception has been remarkable. I go to a prayer breakfast in Oxford on Wednesday mornings. It’s a group of local businessmen of various religions. They treated me with great courtesy. They told me if there was anything they could do to help me get back on my feet emotionally and mentally, to let them know. People didn’t cross the street when they saw me. They walked right up and said hello. I am sure there are people who say things I don’t hear. But I haven’t lost my family and I can’t even name a single close friend that I’ve lost because of this experience. I know I’m fortunate.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Monique Harrison-Henderson

Monique Harrison-Henderson has more than 20 years of experience writing about, studying and teaching about U.S. public education. An award-winning writer, she has served as… See Archive

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