Billy Scruggs is a carpenter and student at Virginia Commonwealth University. While incarcerated at the Richmond City Justice Center, he participated in VCU Open Minds, which we mentioned in our January 15th profile of program founder Dave Coogan.
I never thought I would go to jail. I grew up in the West End, graduated high school, and started going to college. I didn’t smoke weed until college, and didn’t use heroin until I was in my 30s. But after I tried it, within a year I had lost everything.
I went to jail for 33 months after breaking into a house to try to steal money to buy more heroin. I wasn’t a crook or a thief; I had always been a hard-working guy. But I was strung out. I stole from family. I stole from friends. It was really sad. I caused a lot of damage and just left a wake of destruction.
In jail, I got to a point where I realized, ok, either I'm going to use this time as a healthy, monastic experience where I try to change myself, or I fall into the trap of playing cards, watching TV, and wasting time.
The Richmond City Justice Center is very progressive when it comes to rehabilitation programs. I give them a lot of credit for that. Federal prisons in the United States have gotten away from rehab. When you look at countries like Norway and Sweden, you find that the recidivism rate is minuscule—and they focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment. I needed to go to jail. If I hadn't, I probably would’ve wound up dead. And the Richmond City Justice Center was a good experience for me. They gave me a lot of opportunities for growth, and I got involved in everything I could.
VCU has a program called Open Minds, which includes a service-learning class where they bring into jail regular college students and have them study alongside inmates. If you’re an inmate in the REAL Program—a behavior-modification, drug rehab program—then you have access to these classes. Inmates don’t earn college credit; VCU grants credit only if you pay for it. But the experience made it worthwhile.
Open Minds is a pretty sacred thing. There’s a lot of trust going both ways, and it’s challenging. People expose their pasts. We talk about social issues and relate those to life experiences. You get a lot of conflicting ideas, but the professors—people like Dave Coogan, Liz Canfield, Jon Waybright—make sure it’s a learning space, so no one is telling anyone, “you’re wrong.” It’s more like a think tank, a pool of knowledge. You’re sharing your feelings and talking about your problems. I had never done that. And it was definitely needed.
I also got into yoga through a program that was offered by Robbie Norris of Richmond City Yoga. The Ashtanga Practice, the first series, from start to finish, takes an hour and a half. It’s physically demanding. You would see guys who work out, who are cut—and they would go in there and by the end just be exhausted. At the same time, it’s a breathing exercise, and it really relaxes your brain. I would wake up in the morning, go to breakfast, drink a cup of coffee with the rehab group, and then go to yoga practice—and my day was set. I was a lot more focused.
When I told my family about all of these programs, they probably thought I was lying. Who thinks you will go to jail and have all these opportunities for personal growth? But once I got out, I maintained relationships with my VCU professors—and kept up my yoga practice for a while. My family could see the difference in me, in how I thought and how I talked. I was so disgusted with myself about what I had done, so I wanted to show the people who I’d hurt: hey, I’m not only telling you I’m changing. There’s action behind those words.
Still, it’s not like I got out and everything was better. Hanover County started paperwork on a probation violation while I was still in jail in Richmond. They arrested me six months after my release claiming that I hadn’t made restitution. But I had made a payment plan upon release and I had been paying. I showed my receipts, yet the court case went on for two months; the Hanover County Commonwealth’s Attorney felt that my plan didn’t involve large enough payments. Eventually, a judge dismissed the case, but it took lots of time and focus to fight it.
I’ve relapsed a couple of times. I ended up in the hospital once because I overdosed. Even now, when I'm clean and sober, I have nightmares where I’m using, and I wake up with physical sensations of withdrawal. It’s a constant struggle.
Through everything, I’ve had family support, and I have a trade—I’m a trained furniture maker. There’s a lot of people who have been in jail who don’t have those advantages. Without help, without a trade, it’s hard to stay out of jail.
The main thing that keeps me strong is the support cast of VCU professors I met through Open Minds—Dave Coogan, Jon Waybright, Kristin Reed, Thaddeus Fortney. Whenever I start to stray, I think about these people—and I know that I owe it to them and myself to continue doing well. I’m very grateful. I don’t want to fuck it up and fall into what a felon is "supposed" to do.
I started taking classes at VCU after winning a scholarship from Open Minds. I have a B average right now. I’m happy about that. I'm in my third semester, and I plan to earn a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a minor in Religious Studies. I’m focused on small, short-term, attainable goals—just following through with stuff. A lot of people in my situation, we know how to fail. Maintaining success is the hard thing.
Going to jail saved my life. I don’t agree with the long sentences given to people who commit minor crimes, especially crimes involving addiction. But sometimes people need to sit down and think. For me, jail was productive. And I was lucky: I was afforded so many opportunities to better myself. A lot of my success came from working hard and building relationships with my professors. But I was very fortunate. And I don’t want to go back.
— interviewed October 31, 2016