Five years ago, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich reported to a federal prison in Colorado to start a 14-year sentence for corruption, said journalist David Bernstein. In his first prison interview, he details life on the inside.
Blagojevich behind bars
ROD BLAGOJEVICH’S FIRST summer in prison was, he recalls, “quite an awakening.” He had arrived at the low-security prison in Jefferson County, Colo., 15 miles southwest of Denver, in the spring, when there was still a mountain chill in the air. But that year, 2012, Denver experienced its hottest summer on record.
At the time, the former Illinois governor was housed in a dorm room with nearly 100 other inmates. The room was essentially a long, narrow hallway, partitioned into 10-man cubicles. Metal bunks lined the walls, jammed in tight. Blagojevich slept on a top bunk. “It was extremely close quarters,” he notes. “Just a lot of men with a lot of noise—bad sounds and bad smells.”
Blagojevich is telling me this story in an email. It is the first time since being incarcerated more than five and a half years ago that he has been interviewed.
The facility didn’t have air-conditioning, either, he continues. “The heat was oppressive. Sleeping in that heat was almost impossible.” To cool down, he employed a prison trick. He emptied out the contents from the plastic bag of cereal he purchased from the commissary and filled it with ice right before evening lockdown.
Prison officials brought in several large fans and placed them around the room, but there weren’t enough to make much difference. The biggest and toughest inmates, he remembers, would turn the fans to blow toward themselves.
Blagojevich sums up the experience this way: “Extreme heat, drenched in sweat, with no air movement, scores of angry men, snoring and other bad, unpleasant sounds— I remember moaning to myself, ‘How the f did I end up here?’”
FOR MANY OF us, the last images we carry of Rod Blagojevich are from March 15, 2012. The sun had yet to rise when the former governor opened the door of his house in Chicago’s Ravenswood Manor neighborhood and bounded down the front steps toward a waiting car. He was leaving to catch a flight to Denver to start serving his 14-year prison sentence for corruption. The most sensational of the 18 federal counts had him trying to hawk Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat for campaign contributions or political favors. (Five of those counts were tossed on appeal in 2015, though his sentence was not reduced.)
Five years, two months, and eight days later, on a May afternoon, a call with a 303 area code pops up on my cellphone. My phone interview with Rod Blagojevich, Inmate 40892-424, was scheduled for 2 p.m. But it’s only 1:51. Rod Blagojevich, early? While governor, he was chronically and unapologetically late for events, if he showed up at all. But here he was—early— on the other end of the line.
Weeks before, Blagojevich had agreed to an in-person visit, but officials at FCI Englewood denied the request. They allowed instead two telephone interviews: a 30-minute call in May and an hour-long one in July.
Those conversations—as well as six lengthy emails Blagojevich sent me via his lawyer and several interviews with his wife, Patti— offer detailed glimpses into his life behind bars, his relationship with his wife and two daughters, and his thoughts on his future.
I begin our May call by noting that many people presume he’s at a “Club Fed.” Blagojevich responds that it feels nothing like a vacation: “It’s really a prison.”
Opened in 1940, FCI Englewood sits on 320 acres in the foothills of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains next to Littleton, Colo. The low-security facility, where Blagojevich began his sentence, houses some 920 prisoners. If it weren’t for the guards armed with assault rifles and the razor wire encircling it, one might mistake FCI Englewood for a suburban high school. On the same campus is the less restrictive minimumsecurity prison camp where Blagojevich was transferred in November 2014 and now resides, along with 170-plus other inmates.
Blagojevich asked to serve his time at FCI Englewood for several reasons. For starters, it’s one of the few federal prisons to house both low-security and minimum-security facilities. This is important because it makes it quicker and easier for inmates to transfer from one to the other. Second, while there are several low-security prisons much closer to Chicago, FCI Englewood’s proximity to Denver’s airport actually makes it easier for Blagojevich’s family to visit. Third, as Patti Blagojevich points out, Forbes once ranked FCI Englewood among the “12 Best Places to Go to Prison”; it is one of the least violent and least crowded federal sites. Last, but not least important for the inmate, is the inordinate number of days the sun peeks out in Colorado, which Blagojevich thought would help him stay upbeat.
Still, the long sentence has weighed heavily on him. “It’s a terrifying prospect,” he says. “I can’t lie.” He won’t be eligible for early release until he serves a little more than 12 years. He will be 68 then.
Boosting his spirits have been the “hundreds of letters” he says he’s received, most of which are supportive. Then he allows: “I occasionally get a bad one.” He tells me about a letter from a woman from Champaign, Ill. She had been working in state government in 2003 when, on Blagojevich’s first full day as governor, he fired dozens of his predecessor’s political appointees, including her. “She basically waits about 13 years to write me, and I’m in this deep, dark valley, and she says, ‘I hope you’re somebody’s you-know-what’ in prison jargon. It was kind of funny.”
Blagojevich served 32 months at the lowsecurity facility—the first 18 of them in the dorm-style room with the general prison population. His living situation improved greatly when he was moved to the adjoining minimum-security camp—or “outside the fence,” as the prisoners refer to the site because it has no outer barriers. Inmates with less than 10 years on their sentences and who are considered low risk for escape are eligible. “It’s night and day between ‘inside the fence’ and ‘outside the fence,’” Blagojevich says.
Converted from a motel that served those visiting FCI Englewood prisoners, the camp is a boomerang-shaped building with about 50 rooms. Those rooms, which sleep five, are carpeted and have bathrooms with tubs, which Blagojevich likes to use after long runs. Inmates are given much more freedom, and there is only one guard on duty each shift. “There’s lots of room for shenanigans,” says one of Blagojevich’s former cellmates. At night, after the final count, inmates have been known to venture off to Walmart to buy cigarettes. Some have even headed out to the golf course for trysts with girlfriends.
The looser vibe took Patti by surprise initially. She recalls the first time she and her daughters visited her husband at the camp. As they were driving off, they noticed Blagojevich by the side of the road, waving to them. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the first time I’ve seen you outside in years,’” Patti recalls. “I just wanted to say, ‘Jump in the car—let’s go home!’”
FOR BLAGOJEVICH, A man who rose to political heights from modest roots (he is the son of a Serbian-born steelworker and a Chicago rail ticket clerk), prison has been a humbling experience, full of little indignities. As at most correctional facilities, inmates are assigned menial jobs. At the low-security facility, Blagojevich did a three-month stint in the kitchen, one of the toughest tasks, but primarily worked in the law library and taught classes on the Civil War and World War II. His current job as an orderly at the camp pays $8.40 a month. “My jurisdiction was once all of the state of Illinois. Now I’ve got two hallways to clean,” he says.
Blagojevich has come to savor the small acts of kindness. On his first day, he tells me, a group of inmates presented him with the big-house version of a welcome basket. “They took up a collection and put together a gift bag.” Among the items were coffee, a couple of plastic mugs, and a toothbrush. “It was really kind of touching. You know, these are big, tough guys, drug dealers and gangbangers and bank robbers—they have so little, right?—and it’s a sweet thing that they did, welcoming you to their world.”
For mental and emotional fortitude behind bars, he has turned to religion. “I’ve had a chance in prison over these many years to get closer, stronger in my faith,” says Blagojevich, once an altar boy at his Serbian Orthodox church. “The lessons from the Bible and Scripture have been very helpful to me. It’s strengthened my strength. It’s also strengthened my resolve. It’s convinced me further that I know what I’m doing is right.”
In prison, nearly everyone has a nickname. “In my housing unit alone,” Blagojevich says, “there was Smelly, Socks, Sharkey, V, Mr. B, and Boo.” Blagojevich’s nickname? Gov, naturally.
Nonetheless, he hardly runs the joint. Once a gifted glad-hander as a politician, Blagojevich is largely a loner as an inmate. “You gotta navigate carefully, you gotta deal with the politics of prison, and you gotta be careful with that,” he says, explaining why he mostly keeps to himself.
Patti tells me that while her husband has gotten close to some white-collar offenders, he’d rather socialize with other inmates. “He far prefers the honest drug dealer to the con-artist guys.”
I ask if he’s lonely. “Well, of course, yeah,” he replies softly. “Years of loneliness and affliction, yearning for home, missing my family. But I’m OK.”
Much of his day is devoted to reading, writing, and exercising. He cracks open the Bible daily. “It’s the first thing I do in the morning,” he says. “Read it. Reread it. Understand it better.” During our conversation in May, he tells me he is absorbed in Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, about Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Territory, as well as Strength to Love, a collection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons.
Most nights, Blagojevich reads until 2 or 3 o’clock, using a tiny book light he bought at the commissary. He calls the time his “Winston Churchill hours,” because Churchill did some of his best writing in the wee hours of the morning.
DURING ONE OF our phone calls, I ask Blagojevich whether he would do anything differently if he could. “Maybe I had too much pride,” he says. “I know I could’ve been more humble. I could’ve been less combative.” I ask him if he ever envisions making a political return. He laughs, hesitant to answer. “The headline will be ‘Blago Predicts Comeback.’”
Then he adds that he’s read Nelson Mandela’s biography—twice. “I’m not comparing myself to Mandela by any means, but it’s inspirational to read about a guy who had to sit through prison for 27 years. Look what happened to him and his political career. I’m not making any comparison there, OK? Other than to say that through him and a lot of others I get inspiration, and it helps to give me strength to endure.”
“My elder daughter accuses me of being excessively optimistic, but I do believe in second acts.”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Chicago magazine. Reprinted with permission.