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Christmas brings little joy to those in prison

Updated: January 10, 2013 6:29AM

Sunday marks the fourth anniversary of FBI agents pulling then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich out of bed and arresting him.

For Blagojevich, now doing 14 years in a Colorado federal prison, this will be the first of many Christmases behind bars.

For George Ryan, his predecessor, it will be the last.

Admittedly, the prospect of prison hasn’t proved much of a deterrent for politicians in corruption-prone Illinois. Still, descriptions of Christmas in the penitentiary are hauntingly sad.

“The prison I was in was in Morgantown, W.Va., in the mountains,” recalled former City Clerk James Laski. “I just remember on one of the mountains was a Christmas tree, they’d decorated it, and you could see it from the prison.

“I couldn’t wait till that tree came down,” he said with the emotion of someone who can’t erase the image from his memory.

Laski, sent to prison in 2006, lost only one Christmas with his wife and three kids. He remembers postponing his collect call home until evening.

“It’s hard during the day to say, ‘What are you doing, where are you going?’ I couldn’t wait until Christmas Day was over,” he told me.

Former Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese counts out the holidays she spent locked up and away from her young daughter, Ashleigh.

“Let’s see, I was in prison three, four, five, six Christmases inside and one in a halfway house,” she said.

Prison officials’ efforts to make the holidays a bit festive, as far as she was concerned, fell flat.

“The first year, in a high-security prison, they used to give the women paper, paints and glitter to decorate their cell doors,” she recalled. “I could never understand how anyone could celebrate Christmas in prison. I drew, on a 3x5 piece of paper, a bug. And wrote “hum” on it. As in “hum-bug.”

At this moment, three Illinois lawmakers and a Cook County commissioner stand accused of felonies: state Rep. Derrick Smith on a federal bribery charge; state Rep. LaShawn Ford on bank fraud; state Sen. Donne Trotter on a felony gun charge; and Cook County Commissioner William Beavers on federal tax charges.

If found guilty, each faces the possibility — and for most, the certainty — of prison time.

A “lifer” I know, an inmate who prefers that I not give her name, just happened to call collect from a Downstate prison on Friday as I was writing this column. We talk every few weeks. I asked her how she copes with this holiday.

“We long-timers,” she told me, “sometimes get together” and figure who is the neediest among them.

“Some are so alone in here,” she said. And so the lifers pool the scarce commissary cash they earn from prison jobs. And they buy very small things . . . soap, thin mints, a washcloth . . . as gifts to distribute anonymously at Christmas.

“Like Clarence from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” she told me, “some of us try to reflect on what it really means.”

A prison Christmas story.

A cautionary tale.

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