LITTLETON, Colo. — Convicted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich never allowed himself to even think about spending the next decade of his life behind bars. Less than an hour before he began serving his 14-year sentence on corruption charges, he could hardly say that word: "prison."
Now, he is Inmate No. 40892-424.
With helicopters and TV news crews broadcasting his every move Thursday, the one-time golden boy of Illinois politics stepped out of a black SUV, the Colorado mountains on the horizon, and just before noon walked into the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in suburban Denver.
Inside, there was a protocol: full-body strip search, hand over all personal belongings. That means the man with a taste for fine Oxxford-label suits traded in his clothing, save for his wedding ring, for 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."
Although he was sentenced in December, he was given more than three months to say goodbye to his wife, Patti, and their two daughters.
"I keep speaking euphemistically about `a place,'" the 55-year-old Blagojevich said about an hour before entering prison, during a stop at a nearby restaurant. "I look at it like I am reporting for military service ... that is a game I play with myself. But the sad reality is that's a prison that I have to walk into shortly."
As he rode around in his rental car before reporting to the prison, his youngest daughter – 8-year-old Anne – continually called on his cellphone, upset at his departure, he said. Blagojevich could be seen leaning against the vehicle, talking on the phone in the parking lot.
"I kept trying to reassure her," he told reporters, sounding subdued.
Blagojevich is the second ex-Illinois governor in a row sent to prison for corruption.
In what had become a familiar scene in the three years since his arrest, the famously talkative and confident Democrat bounded down the stairs of his Chicago home through a throng of photographers and cameramen Thursday morning as he headed to the airport. Supporters were shouting encouragement.
"Saying goodbye is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," said Blagojevich, who wasn't accompanied by his wife, though she could be seen through the windows. One of their two daughters peeked out a window before her father departed.
A night earlier, he invited media to hear his final public statement and seemed to relish in the attention when roughly 300 people crowded into his yard. The one-time reality show contestant said he always believed what he did while governor was legal and was confident "the truth ultimately will prevail."
Blagojevich requested the prison in Littleton, just outside Denver. Although designated a low-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 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 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 toilettes.'"
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.
Ex-cons say Blagojevich must master unwritten codes in a world where normal rules don't apply. Among them: Never gazing at other inmates for longer than a second or two, least they take the stares as a sign of aggression.
But undoubtedly the most difficult change will be living without his wife and their daughters Anne and 15-year-old Amy. In the prison, their contact will be limited to a few times a month and, when he does see his family, Blagojevich will be able to hug and kiss them once at the start of the visit and once at the end.
Under federal rules, inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their terms. That's nearly 12 years for Blagojevich, though his term could be reduced under a prison program.
To fight boredom, the avid runner could jog on a prison track for the limited time inmates are allowed in the main yard, or he could read or play pool in a game room. Internet access and cellphones are prohibited.
A law graduate, he also could research his case in the prison library. He and his attorneys are appealing both the 14-year sentence and his convictions.
"After the initial fear of the first days, boredom is the main enemy," Marcus said. "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."
Michael Tarm reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Don Babwin and Jason Keyser in Chicago; Dan Elliott in Denver; and Rema Rahman in Littleton, Colo., contributed to this report.
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