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How many years he gets may determine the prison where Blagojevich will serve his time

Updated: June 29, 2011 9:49AM

Where will Rod Blagojevich serve his time?

It may depend on how much time he has to serve.

It’s up to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to place a prisoner, but experts say that the length of Blagojevich’s sentence could be a key factor in deciding whether the former governor is in a place with guards and bars or in a place with khakis and cards.

Defendants who are sentenced to more than 10 years in prison typically don’t get a spot in the more-desired prison camps, said defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback, who is regarded as an expert in federal sentencing and who has testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Experts are estimating Blagojevich, convicted of 18 counts over two trials, could get a 12-year prison sentence. Though 17 of his counts each carry a 20-year maximum, he’s likely to serve that concurrently.

In a camp, people move more freely. They play more sports. There’s no outside fence, just a line you can’t cross.

“There’s more access to fresh air, and to exercise, more individual freedom and that is important in doing time,” Steinback said.

Low- and-medium-security prisons are a different story.

“It is locked down. There are traditional guards, an outer fence you can’t go past because it locks you in,” he said. “Because of the nature of confinement, it is more secure.”

An inmate in a higher-security prison can qualify for a prison camp once a sentence is served down below 10 years, he said. But doing time in camps, including the well-known Oxford Prison Camp in Wisconsin, is no walk in the park, he said.

“It is a very, very harsh adjustment,” Steinback said. “People who refer to these places as ‘Club Fed’ have no idea what they’re talking about.”

The prison system tries to keep inmates close to their families when they place them in a prison, otherwise “they can become unruly,” said Larry Beaumont, a defense attorney.

That’s why so many Chicago white collar defendants are placed in prison camps in Oxford or in Terre Haute, Ind.

“Blagojevich is either going to go to Oxford or Indiana where Ryan is,” said Beaumont, referring to former Gov. George Ryan, who is serving out his 6 ½ year sentence there. “It’s a good bet.”

There’s also a low-security facility in Milan, Mich., a prison camp in Leavenworth, Kansas, as well as Marion Prison Camp in Southern Illinois that all could come into play if Blagojevich qualifies.

Inmates who cooperated with the government are known to go to Duluth, Iowa. And there is a rule where cooperators don’t serve time at the same place as the person they testified against, for security reasons.

Sometimes that gets waived, lawyers say. But it could be to Blagojevich’s benefit to be sentenced before his own witnesses — John Harris or Lon Monk — if he wants a spot in a prison closer to home.

If Blagojevich were sent to the camp in Oxford, he would qualify for visits from his wife Patti, and his two daughters, who are 8 and 14, according to a point system.

“Visiting room and lobby staff will maintain a record of all inmate visits through the use of a point system under which each inmate is allotted 35 visiting points per month,” Oxford’s written rules say. “One point will be assessed for each hour or portion of an hour more than 15 minutes visited. Unless authorized by the warden, points will be charged on holidays.”

Each prison has its own guidelines, but many only allow one 10-minute phone call a day.

Any prison term will have an undeniable toll on Blagojevich’s children, say defense lawyers, who say their clients often tell them their kids start faltering in school once they go away.

“No matter what happens to him, they’re going to be scarred for life,” said federal defense attorney Kent Carlson. “When you’re used to having a father to do stuff and he’s not there, it has an impact.”

Wherever he goes, once he’s in prison, Blagojevich will want a job, as inmates often vie for them as a way to battle mental isolation. They spend other time playing cards, and playing sports — everything from basketball to tennis.

Blagojevich shouldn’t expect much from the barbers, usually staffed by inmates, said former Gov. George Ryan’s old chief of staff Scott Fawell.

“There’s no stylist in the federal prison system,” said Fawell, who served more than four years of federal time in Yankton, S.D.

When he first arrived at federal prison camp, Fawell said he was allowed visits every weekend. Over his four-plus years, that changed: first to every other weekend, and then to every three weekends. An influx of inmates caused the change. And an overloaded prison system means Blagojevich will have to deal with a new reality: lack of privacy.

Fawell said his family could only eat from a vending machine in the room; they couldn’t bring food into the visiting area.

“It’s a little odd for them,” Fawell said of bringing his two young stepchildren to prison, but added it would help change their image of prisons they see on television. “The reality is, it’s still better for them: ‘He’s not in TV jail, it’s just where I am.’”

Fawell said once guards got to know him and realized he wasn’t much of a trouble-maker, he had some more freedom and leeway in his actions. He said he often heard inmates complain about what guards or counselors in the prison would do. His response?

“They can do whatever they want,” Fawell said. “You’re a prisoner. Nobody’s gonna take pity on you. ‘We do what we want. We’re in charge. We don’t care who you are.’ That’s just the way it is.”

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