Scruggs seeking second chance for unemployed, dropouts
Some may have questioned the propriety of inviting a convicted felon to address supporters and members of the Boys and Girls Club of Northwest Mississippi at their banquet last week.
But the message of Dickie Scruggs, founder of Second Chance Mississippi, resonated as one of hope and optimism as ºhe described the work of his foundation in helping adults obtain high school equivalency and work skills that they’d missed earlier in life.
With what seemed to me genuine humility and self-deprecating humor, Scruggs described how his six years in prison left him with a desire to help those like the prisoners he’d tutored.
After pleading guilty to judicial bribery in 2008, Scruggs, an Oxford attorney who’d earlier gained national attention for successfully suing tobacco companies, was disbarred and sent to prison in Kentucky.
“I was embarrassed and ashamed,” he told the banquet audience. “I didn’t want to tell the other inmates what I’d done.”
He didn’t know it at the time but about 20 percent of the 1,000 inmates at the prison were convicted pedophiles. So when he was not forthcoming with details of his crime, the others assumed he was a pedophile and, adhering to the prison social structure, would have nothing to do with him.
“For the first few days no one would make eye contact with me or talk to me,” he recalled. “I couldn’t figure out why I was being treated that way.”
Finally one of the prison’s longtime residents, a well-read man who’d earned his Ph.D. in prison, came to Scruggs’ defense. He’d read about the case in the New York Times.
“Scruggs is okay,” he told the others. “He’s here for judicial bribery.”
“You are a legitimate criminal,” his roommate said.
Scruggs quickly received a promotion from his first prison job, rolling silverware in napkins, to tutoring those who were enrolled in a GED program there.
“Guys were asking me for my help, particularly math,” he said. “That’s why I went to law school, so I wouldn’t have to do math.”
As a full time tutor, Scruggs received $15 a month. But he got something else…the reward of “seeing the light bulbs come on.”
“The hardest part of prison,” he said, “was loss of any sense of purpose.”
The prison tutoring job gave him purpose, and that continued when he was released three years ago.
Still a wealthy man, but unable to practice law, he, with his son Zach, developed Second Chance Mississippi to raise awareness and funds for adult education and work skills training.
Scruggs believes that Mississippi’s biggest barrier to prosperity and growth is its lack of an educated and skilled workforce, and the 2ndChanceMS Web site cites that only 55 percent of adult Mississippians are either employed or are looking for work.
In addition, 20 percent of the state’s adult population lack a high school diploma.
By affiliating with the state’s community college system, considered one of the best in the nation, Scruggs hopes his organization will help boost efforts the 15 community colleges are making to get Mississippians a diploma and a skill.
A specific role of Second Chance Mississippi has been the establishment of two pilot programs currently under way with 100 low income former dropouts whose average age is 27. Scruggs’ group has raised funds to pay their tuition for the 25-week manufacturers’ basic skills certification courses at Itawamba Community College and Northeast Community College.
When they have completed their work, the program participants will have earned GEDs and skills certification that makes them immediately employable.
The total cost is $1,000 per participant, including the course tuition, a gas card to help them get to class, and a $250 bonus when they complete the course.
Supporters of Second Chance Mississippi say it’s a bargain price to put someone into the workforce.
As for the Boys & Girls Club, “I encourage you to continue doing what you’re doing,” Scruggs said. “If you do, you’ll put us out of business.”