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Blagojevich stepping into another world

By Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — When he surrenders at a federal prison outside Denver this week, Rod Blagojevich will trade his beautiful bungalow on a corner lot in Ravenswood Manor for a dormitory or small cell with a metal-frame bunk bed.

Blagojevich made close to $150,000 a year as Illinois governor and favored expensive suits, but in prison he will wear khaki pants and shirts and earn no more than 40 cents an hour working in the kitchen or as a janitor or landscaper.

Gone, too, will be his long runs through his tree-lined neighborhood and along the river; instead, he can circle a track in a recreation yard.

But he can keep his hair.

Blagojevich’s arrival at the low-security Englewood federal prison near Littleton, Colo., where he will begin serving his 14-year sentence for corruption, promises to be a time of whiplash-like adjustments to regulations and the loss of everything familiar, followed by years of stultifying monotony.

Scott Fawell, who served time in federal prison in South Dakota for his role in the corruption scandal that brought down Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan, once compared prison life to “Groundhog Day,” the Bill Murray movie in which a single day is endlessly repeated.

The postcard setting — vistas of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a golf course next door — serves as a painful reminder of what is lost.

For Blagojevich, life behind bars is set to begin Thursday at the low-security facility on 320 acres that was built in 1938 and that in 2006 ranked as among the best federal prisons to serve time. The reasons: Inmates there can play pool, pingpong and foosball.

But make no mistake, when Blagojevich walks past two high fences topped by razor wire, he will leave behind all of his personal possessions save a wedding ring — as long as it is a plain band and does not contain a diamond or other stone.

Until he is set free, life will be regimented. He will rise before 6 a.m. for breakfast, start his workday half an hour later, and be counted as often as six times a day. He will be an eight-digit number, not a name. And certainly no longer a big name. Englewood officials make a point that inmates all are treated the same.

The staff, according to prison spokesman John Sell, is “extremely capable of managing inmates from very diverse backgrounds.”

In his first days, a team of counselors and other prison employees will meet with Blagojevich to acquaint him with the prison and its rules. If he has gone online to the prison’s website before his arrival, a 22-page admission and orientation handbook has set out many of those regulations.

Prison consultants and former inmates said it is best to learn the rules, follow them closely and do your time, no matter how long, with as little complaint as possible. That is not always easy for men who in their previous lives and jobs wielded power, whether in business or government — men such as Blagojevich and Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron Corp. president who is serving a long sentence at the Englewood prison.

“For a guy like him, he’s going to get a wake-up call,” said John Webster, a former attorney who went to prison for lying to the FBI and now advises people headed to prison. “He’s used to getting things done and telling people what to do. Prison does not work that way.”

“If he goes in there with an attitude,” Webster said, “he’s going to have problems.”

Herbert Hoelter, a sentencing and prison consultant, said he encourages clients to set goals while in prison, such as exercising more and losing weight or learning a language or another skill. And in fact Englewood has facilities for inmates to do that: a gym and weight room, a music room and even a hobby shop as well as the requisite law library. Many of the facilities, according to the prison, are open seven days a week. For most inmates, the workday ends at 3 p.m., and they can spend the time after as they choose.

“The best advice is to accept your fate, set some goals and try to meet those goals,” said Hoelter, who is chief executive of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Baltimore. “You make peace with it. Let the lawyers do their job. If you get lucky, fine, but do your time.”

One of the few places where inmates at the Englewood federal prison can express their individuality — Blagojevich will almost certainly be pleased to learn — is with how they wear their hair.

“Your individual preferences as to the type of haircut as well as mustaches, beards and sideburns are permitted,” the handbook states in a section on personal hygiene, “as long as they are kept clean and neatly trimmed and will not cause a disruption among the inmate population.”

Blagojevich has spoken frequently of the hardship his prison term will cause for wife, Patti, and his two daughters. Prison officials, according to the handbook, say he can receive family photos once he has arrived, and they encourage visits, though they are closely monitored. Prisoners are limited to a kiss and an embrace at the beginning and end of each visit, and they can hold hands with their visitors as well. Anything more, however, can prompt the guards to cut a visit short.

All those rules mean that, in many ways, the former governor cannot be the Blagojevich whom Illinois residents came to know over the past decade. He has time to serve — a long time by many standards — and risks losing privileges by acting out or by challenging a system that works with remarkable structure.

“The goal in federal prison is to be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there,” said Webster, who served 13 months in five prisons in 2001 and 2002. “If you think you can con them or B.S. them, you’re making a big mistake. It’s like being in a storm: You just have to wait it out.”

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