Harrison County

Dickie Scruggs lost, regained sense of purpose in prison

GULFPORT -- Dickie Scruggs expected to feel humiliated and lonely when he went to federal prison for conspiring to bribe a judge, but he never anticipated the loss of his sense of purpose.

As an attorney he made corporations pay, and pay big, for harm they inflicted on his clients. Asbestos, tobacco and insurance cases consumed his time. He led teams of attorneys, wielding formidable skills as a negotiator and deal maker to secure multimillion-dollar settlements from companies in these industries.

He never saw the FBI agents coming. They raided his meticulously appointed law offices on Oxford's square in 2007. Scruggs wound up in federal prison in Ashland, Ky., where he spent six years and found a new sense of purpose, a mission far removed from his life as a plaintiff's attorney.

His mission brought him Tuesday to the Coast, his home as a child and for much of his legal career. Gulfport Rotarians greeted him with handshakes and smiles when he strolled into the banquet room atop Hancock Bank. Scruggs spoke to the Gulfport Rotary Club about helping Mississippians earn their GEDs. He founded and funds the administration of an organization called Second Chance Mississippi, which raises awareness and money to make a dent in Mississippi's population of 500,000 adults -- one in five -- without high school diplomas.

Scruggs started his speech with that number and two others: 14,000 children drop out of school every year in Mississippi, which ranks 50th in many categories, including employment and educational attainment.

But he moved pretty quickly to the elephant in the room: His crime and time in prison.

Finding purpose

Scruggs said he was embarrassed to tell his fellow inmates why he was in prison.

Soon enough, an inmate inquired about Scruggs' crime. "I said, 'Well, I made a mistake,'" he said. "What kind of mistake?" the inmate asked. "I'd rather not say," he told him.

About a week later, Scruggs learned why everyone refused to sit with him in the cafeteria and why his roommate wanted to move. They all thought he was a child molester. A wise old head among the inmates had read some of the nationwide publicity about Scruggs' crime and set the others straight.

Scruggs recalled: "My roommate comes up and says, 'Scruggs, let me tell you, I can't tell you how happy I am that you are a legitimate criminal." The Rotarians cracked up.

Then he grew serious. "The worst part of prison for me, actually, was the loss of any sense of purpose," he said. "I wasn't prepared for that. It was a very lonely, hopeless feeling."

As word spread that he had been an attorney, inmates approached him for help earning their GEDs, which federal prisons require and Scruggs wishes state prisons would, too. He helped them one at a time, then went from sweeping floors as a prison job to instructing inmates in math for their GED tests.

"It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I've ever done," he said. "I became sort of a cheerleader for these guys to encourage them to get their GEDs so that when they got out, they could have a chance to get a job and not come back to prison. The recidivism rate is close to 70 percent, (but) for people who get their GEDs, it's only about 30 percent."

The goal

He was especially proud at graduations, when inmates donned caps and gowns to receive GEDs as their families looked on.

After his release from prison, he reached out to an educator after he heard her discussing GEDs on public radio. She was receptive. That led to Second Chance Mississippi.

Scruggs is as passionate about his new crusade as he was about pursuing corporate wrongdoers.

Second Chance supports the Mississippi Community College Foundation. He never realized how much community colleges do to help Mississippians earn GEDs or become certified in skills that lead to higher-paying jobs. He said students often are "one flat tire away" from being forced out of these programs. Teachers dig into their own pockets to help students when their power is shut off, or they have flat tires, so they can keep coming to class.

Teachers shouldn't have to do that, he said, which is why his organization provides money to help with emergency expenses, and why he speaks to civic groups whose members can do the same.

The Rotarians were so impressed with Scruggs' mission they dug into their pockets right then and there, pledging $2,000 in donations.

Scruggs has big plans for his organization, which has applied for nonprofit status so contributions will be tax deductible. He said he can't do anything about the high school dropout rate, but he does want to double the number of GEDs earned each year in Mississippi to 4,000.

He has embraced his own second chance with the same passion he's always demonstrated.