Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich has arrived at the federal prison in Colorado where he will begin serving a 14-year sentence for corruption.
With two of his lawyers beside him, Blagojevich walked into the low-security federal prison near Littleton, Colo., at about 12:50 p.m. Chicago time.
He had approached the prison earlier, but then headed to a lunch spot for a final meal before he surrendered. He ordered a double patty melt, fries and a soda but didn’t finish the meal, according to Josh Andreakos, general manager of Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.
In what has become a familiar scene in the three years since Blagojevich was taken out of his home in handcuffs by federal agents, the former governor had bounded down the stairs of his Ravenswood Manor home hours earlier as cameramen, photographers and reporters crushed around him and well-wishers shouted encouragement.
Reporters shouted out questions as Blagojevich, dressed in a dark blazer and shirt with blue jeans, walked toward a waiting Chrysler sedan. "You are the best," someone yelled. In a few moments, the crowd quieted down and Blagojevich made a brief statement.
"Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he said. "I'm leaving with a heavy heart, a clear conscience, but I have high, high hopes for the future. Among the hopes is that you guys go home and our neighbors can get their neighborhood back. I'll see you guys when I see ya. I'll see you around."
Blagojevich was not accompanied by his wife, Patti, who wiped away tears the night before as he addressed the media. She and the couple's two daughters did not step out of the house, though she could be seen through the windows and one of the two girls peeked out a window from time to time before her father pulled away.
With television helicopters in tow, Blagojevich headed off to O'Hare International Airport for a flight to Colorado, where he will serve his sentence as federal inmate 40892-424.
The Chrysler pulled up to the American Airlines terminal and Blagojevich got out and was met by someone with two copies of his book, which he signed. Then he headed for the doors of the terminal.
"I better get on the plane, I don't think they're going to hold it for me," he told reporters.
A special line was opened up for Blagojevich at the security checkpoint, where he raised his arms as he went through the imaging machine. Just as he was surrounded by cameras at his house, a crowd of travelers at the airport snapped his photograph as he made his way to the gate.
Once in his seat, he was approached by a Fox News reporter who was also on the flight. Asked for his thoughts, Blagojevich said: "I appreciate the outpouring of kindness that people have shown. . .God has a purpose for all things."
He stepped off a plane less than three hours later at Denver International Airport, where local media reported he got in a car waiting for him at the airport gate.
Blagojevich had to report to the prison by 2 p.m. He will undergo a full-body strip search and hand over his personal belongings, save for his wedding ring. The man with a taste for fine Oxford-label suits will be given khaki prison garb and boots.
Jurors convicted Blagojevich on 18 counts, including charges that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat. FBI wiretaps revealed a fouled-mouth Blagojevich describing the opportunity to exchange an appointment to the seat for campaign cash or a top job as “f------ golden.”
The famously talkative Democrat embraced the public spotlight one last time Wednesday evening, seeming to relish the attention of reporters' microphones and hovering television helicopters as he expressed faith he would successfully appeal his convictions. The one-time reality show contestant claimed he always believed what he did while governor was legal.
“While my faith in things has sometimes been challenged, I still believe this is America, this is a country that is governed by the rule of law, that the truth ultimately will prevail,” Blagojevich told the crowd outside his Chicago home. “As bad as it is, (this) is the beginning of another part of a long and hard journey that will only get worse before it gets better, but … this is not over.”
The 55-year-old married father requested the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in suburban Denver. Although a minimum-security facility, it looks every bit a prison: stone buildings are institutional beige, the grounds encircled by high razor-wire fencing. Blagojevich, leaving behind his wife and two daughters in the family's spacious Chicago home, will share a cell the size of a large, walk-in closet with up to three inmates.
The prison has a few other high-profile inmates, including Jeff Skilling, the former CEO and president of Enron who is serving a 24-year sentence for fraud and other crimes. But most of the facility's nearly 1,000 inmates are there for drug offences, and some could be in for violent crimes including murder, said U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke.
Inside, Blagojevich's life will be strictly regimented. The impeached governor — who was heard on the FBI wiretaps scoffing at the idea of earning a low six-figure salary — will work a menial prison job, possibly cleaning bathrooms or doing landscape work, starting at 12 cents an hour.
Guards take a half dozen head counts a day, including several overnight, and Blagojevich will be told what to do rather than give orders to sycophant aides, as he did while Illinois' top executive.
“He's going to be doing a lot of, `yes sir' and `no sir,“’ said Jim Laski, a former Chicago city clerk sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in 2006. “It's a humbling, humiliating experience. But you have to take it.”
Blagojevich's fame outside won't do him any good inside, explained Jim Marcus, a Chicago-based defense attorney and former prosecutor.
“You say you were once the governor of Illinois — no one gives hoot,” Marcus said. “Prisoners are going to say, `You're in the same boat as me, pal. Now go clean the toilets.“’
Perhaps some good news for Blagojevich is that he won't have to shave off his trademark thick hair, though maintenance may pose challenges. Hair dryers, for instance, are prohibited.
To cope in prison, ex-cons say, Blagojevich must master unwritten prison codes. Among them: Never gaze at other inmates for longer than a second or two, least they take the stares as a sign of aggression.
“Above all, remember that the normal rules of the outside world simply don't apply any longer,” according to an entry on the WikiHow website written by former federal inmates. “When you're in prison, you're living on a different planet.”
But the most difficult change undoubtedly will be living without his wife, Patti, and their daughters, 15-year-old Amy and 8-year-old Anne. In prison, his contact with them will be limited to a few times a month and, when they do see each other, Blagojevich will be able to hug and kiss them once at the start of the visit and once at the end.
On all the other days he'll have another fight: boredom.
Under federal rules, inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their terms before becoming eligible for early release. That's nearly 12 years for Blagojevich, though his term could be reduced if he successfully enters a substance-abuse rehabilitation program, which his lawyers requested and the sentencing judge recommended without explanation.
He could read or play pool in a game room. The avid runner could jog, but only on a prison track for the limited time he's allow into the main yard. Internet access is prohibited, as are cellphones.
A law graduate, he could head to the prison library to research his case. He and his attorney are appealing both the lengthy 14-year sentence and his convictions.
“After the initial fear of the first days, boredom is the main enemy,” said Marcus, the defense attorney. “Getting up at the same time, eating, working, sleeping at the same time … that's what gets to so many inmates, and Blagojevich is in for such a long time.”