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Rod Blagojevich enters federal prison in Colorado to start 14-year sentence

— After a goodbye tour that stretched from Chicago's Ravenswood Manor neighborhood to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Rod Blagojevich turned, waved and disappeared Thursday behind a darkened doorway of a federal prison.

Inside Federal Correctional Institution-Englewood, change came in an instant as Blagojevich left his media entourage and the hovering helicopters behind to start an afternoon intake that involved a strip search and mental evaluation.

Any glamour or rock-star quality Blagojevich carried into the low-security prison will wear off quickly, those who have made the transition say. Now his reality is a strict, dreary regimen and fellow inmates who don't always suffer fools.

"You are just left with some serious, deep, inner contemplation," said Peter Ninemire, a former Englewood inmate who is now an addiction therapist. "He's all alone. Truly he is. He's going to have some coming down."

Blagojevich's final days of freedom played out in dramatic fashion, fitting for a saga that over the last 3 1/2 years saw him arrested, impeached, tried, convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

The end of the odyssey began Wednesday outside his Northwest Side home as Blagojevich delivered a campaign-style speech to hundreds of supporters and onlookers shortly after 5 p.m. so local TV stations could carry the spectacle live.

On Thursday, virtually every step he took from his home to the suburban Denver prison was chronicled by a gaggle of reporters. As he stepped from his house about 6 a.m., he told a crowd of people that saying goodbye to wife Patti and his two daughters was the toughest thing he had ever done. He ended his address with "I'll see you around," and he got into a waiting car.

At O'Hare International Airport, he signed autographs and posed for photos. Even aboard the jet, he fielded questions from reporters who made the commercial flight with him. He stopped to answer more questions at the Denver airport.

Then as he rode with two of his attorneys in a black SUV to the prison 15 miles southwest of Denver, a camera-toting helicopter tracked his movement and the image streamed live on TV websites.

Reporters — and some gawkers — gathered on a street across from the prison, listening for updates from news crews as the whir of the helicopter approached. But his entourage — several media followed in their own rented vehicles — drove by the prison without stopping. At one point they seemed to get lost, pulling into a parking a lot and back out. As he neared the prison again, the tension mounted — would he stop?

Instead he went for lunch at Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers. For his last meal outside prison, Blagojevich ordered a double patty melt with fries and a soda, although he ate little or none of the food, said general manager Josh Andreakos.

A short time later, the SUV returned to the prison, passing the waiting media, the only time on this day that Blagojevich ignored a reporter. Moments later, he walked into the prison with his attorneys by his side.

Chris Burke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in Washington, said that all incoming inmates go through the same screening, including a strip search, a sit-down with a psychologist, paperwork processing and a cell assignment.

Inmates can't keep any possessions they bring in except for a plain wedding band.

Scott Fawell, a top aide of convicted former Gov. George Ryan who himself served more than 4 years in a federal prison camp, said intake took about four hours. And it started in a manner that might be challenging for the former governor — waiting for about 30 minutes alone.

"It's an isolation game right out of the box," Fawell said. "It gives you time to think. They want to see, especially guys like Rod who it is the first time, how they handle the stress. How are you taking the fact that you are now in prison?"

Fawell said Blagojevich's first interaction with inmates would likely come at dinner.

"That's when you look out and there will be 200 or 300 faces," he said. "You better not just plop yourself down. If you want to sit at a table, you better ask."

Ultimately, Blagojevich will have a choice to make — to either remain angry or strip away his ego, said Ninemire, who served nearly 10 years at Englewood on a marijuana conviction.

Blagojevich can either "focus on all the things you can't have and can't do," Ninemire said. "Or journey inward. … Prison should be about a coming-home process. We got lost along the way."

asweeney@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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