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Judge recommends Colorado low-security prison for Blagojevich

By Cynthia Dizikes, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — If Rod Blagojevich gets his choice, he will spend more than the next decade at a Colorado federal prison framed by lakes, golf courses and a distant view of the Rocky Mountains.

But all that will remain beyond his reach, past cement walls, armed guards and rolls of razor wire.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel on Tuesday agreed with the defense to recommend that the former Illinois governor serve his 14-year prison sentence at a low-security federal prison nestled in Littleton, a suburb of Denver at the foothills of the Rockies.

The final decision, however, will be made by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which will take safety, overcrowding and other issues into consideration.

“We do try to accommodate the court’s recommendation,” said Chris Burke, a spokesman in Washington for the prisons bureau. “If at all possible, we comply with them.”

At first blush, Blagojevich’s request for a prison some 1,000 miles from Chicago would seem to be an odd one, especially since attorneys said his family doesn’t plan to move to Denver. Blagojevich’s legal team on Tuesday did not explain the reasoning behind the choice. But Sam Adam Jr., a former attorney for Blagojevich who remains close to the former governor, said that the former governor opted for the Colorado prison because of its reputation and proximity to Denver and its airport.

“My understanding is that it has fewer fighting outbreaks and gang problems,” Adam said. “And since this is not going to be a camp, you have to consider who goes there.”

While Blagojevich’s lawyer acknowledged the former governor would have preferred a federal prison camp and its lesser restrictions, he likely wouldn’t qualify for that because he was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison — the usual cutoff for camps.

Larry Levine, a prison consultant who served time himself, said that the Littleton institution also offers some perks not available at a similar facility in Milan, Mich., the closest low-security federal prison to Chicago. It has a smaller inmate population than Milan, one additional day a week for families to visit and perhaps most importantly, a camp that Blagojevich could move to in a few years.

The facility houses Jeffrey Skilling, an executive convicted in the Enron scandal. In addition, Lawrence Warner, a co-defendant of convicted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, served his sentence there.

If Blagojevich is assigned to Littleton, life there promises to be regimented. The inmates are kept on a strict daily schedule, rising by 6 a.m., chowing down at breakfast half an hour later and then going to school or work for the next 7 ½ hours, according to John Sell, a spokesman for the facility.

Every inmate must work a job. Among the tasks Blagojevich could be given would be dishwashing, cleaning, landscaping or plumbing, Sell said.

He will wear prison garb — khaki pants and shirt and black work boots. But Blagojevich doesn’t have to worry about his signature locks. Under prison rules, he won’t be given a crew cut but must keep his hair clean and neatly trimmed.

After dinner, Blagojevich could use the fitness center, run on treadmills or use the outdoor track, softball field and basketball courts.

The former governor would have to be in his living quarters by 8:30 p.m. He could sleep in a dormitory-style room with open doors or in two-man cells.

He would likely be living with white-collar criminals and other nonviolent offenders convicted on a range of offenses, including drug and Internet sex crimes.

“It’s a pretty eclectic group,” Sell said.

Levine said that after several years in the low-security facility, Blagojevich could be moved into the adjacent camp.

It’s still a prison, but it would offer a bit more freedom. Blagojevich would live with four roommates in an army-style barracks and allowed to move around the grounds and work with less oversight. Some can even leave the facility and drive into town to pick up recycling at other federal buildings.

“At the camps they are given a lot more responsibility over themselves,” Sell said.

While Littleton may be a better option for Blagojevich than closer facilities, Scott Fawell, a former top aide to Ryan who was convicted of corruption as well, said his family would likely end up spending a lot more money on visits.

Fawell, who was sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison, served his time at a prison camp in Yankton, S.D. He said he requested to go there because it didn’t feel like a prison as it was located in an old university building in the middle of the community. It also was far away from Illinois and the news of the scandal. But he estimated that his family spent about $20,000 on visits during that time.

“It can get very expensive for your loved ones to see you,” Fawell said.

Fawell said, however, that he was able to take advantage of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program to help shave close to a year off his sentence. Littleton offers the same program.

Still, Jeff Steinback, who was Fawell’s attorney, said that Blagojevich would likely face a major adjustment period when he reports to prison on March 15. The judge on Tuesday gave him an extra month before surrendering in order to sell the family home in Chicago and find another residence for his wife and two daughters.

Once he reports to prison, Steinback said, Blagojevich will have to contend with the notoriety of his case, the distance from his family and, essentially, banishment from society.

Under federal sentencing rules, Blagojevich won’t be eligible for release until early 2024 when he is 67 years old.

The scenic views surrounding Englewood won’t change that fact, Steinback said.

“Most facilities are off somewhere that appears somewhat idyllic or bucolic,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is confinement is confinement. And in some ways looking out your window but never being able to go someplace pretty may be tougher than looking out on nothing.”

©2011 the Chicago Tribune

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