Convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants to enroll in a substance-abuse program at a federal prison outside of Denver, a move that could shave up to a year off of his prison sentence.
Blagojevich’s legal team, however, has downplayed the request, briefly mentioning the drug program by only its acronym in court Tuesday, resulting in hardly anyone noticing among a throng of reporters. And then, a day later, the attorneys declined to comment at all.
But the move raises questions about whether Blagojevich suffers from a real substance-abuse problem or is simply angling to reduce his stiff 14-year sentence.
Two former associates of another convicted former Illinois governor, George Ryan, said Wednesday that they remember it didn’t take much to get into the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program — as little as regularly consuming five alcoholic drinks a week before they had been incarcerated.
“Any defense lawyer in town that’s worth their salt all know about this and they all try to get their clients in,” said Scott Fawell, Ryan’s former chief of staff who cut his sentence by about 8 months by completing the drug program at a federal prison in Yankton, S.D. “(A lot) of the people who go through the system now ask for it or attempt to get in. How many actually need it, I couldn’t tell you.”
U.S. District Judge James Zagel agreed this week to recommend Blagojevich for the counseling program at a low-security prison in Littleton, Colo., but the ultimate decision will be made by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
According to the agency’s guidelines, inmates must have “a verifiable substance-use disorder.”
“The bottom line is that we look for evidence that the inmate has a documented substance-abuse history before their arrest,” said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons. “If that is five drinks a week and there is something to verify that beyond that inmate’s statement, that might qualify.”
At the Littleton facility, inmates are given an initial screening by medical and psychological staff on their arrival at the institution but are not screened for admittance into the substance-abuse program until three to four years before their release date.
Inmates must have a proven history of substance abuse within the 12-month period before their arrest.
But Burke acknowledged on Wednesday that as the program has expanded throughout the federal prison system, officials have grappled with more inmates attempting to enroll simply to reduce their sentences.
“As inmates become more aware of the program and what it offers, I think it has been more challenging for us to weed out those inmates who are just trying to game the system,” he said.
Under federal guidelines, Blagojevich would likely serve just under 12 years in prison. That could be reduced to 11 years if he is able to enroll in and successfully completes the nine-month program. He would also be eligible to spend his final six months in a halfway house.
If he is enrolled, Blagojevich would spend his mornings in small group therapy sessions and other educational activities. That means he would only have to work a prison job half a day.
Lawrence Warner, a close Ryan friend sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in that scandal, took part in the program while doing his time at the federal prison camp in Littleton, adjacent to the low-security facility where Blagojevich hopes to go.
“It was a wonderful program,” said Warner, who added that he was admitted into the program for drinking problems he developed over the many years he was under investigation. “You had guys that would never speak and then they would have to speak in class. and all of a sudden you would see self-confidence come back in them.”
Fawell was admitted into the program at Yankton for similar problems.
Most of the inmates in the program, however, had drug problems like crack cocaine or heroin addictions, he said.
Fawell said he talked to one of Blagojevich’s attorneys recently about the substance-abuse program.
“Their criteria, the bar, is pretty low,” Fawell said. “If it’s available and you qualify for it, you’d be crazy not to take it.”