THE world and its immediate confines are a lot smaller for Rod Blagojevich these days.
But he’s had five years to get used to it.
That’s how long it is since the disgraced former governor exchanged life – which had seen him rule America’s fifth biggest city and hang with Donald Trump while starring in The Apprentice – for a prison cell.
Back then, he was living the American dream.
Now, he admits he’s living the reverse. As Federal inmate 40892-424, he cleans prison floors for the tiny sum of $US8 a month.
In his first interviews since being jailed for 14 years for political corruption, the former celebrated Democrat admits he doesn’t even follow politics any more.
Even if he wanted to, he doesn’t have internet access.
Details of the interviews were published online on Monday by magazine. He also spoke by telephone with NBC5’s Phil Rogers.
He shows little remorse, apparently, for the crimes that landed him in prison.
But he admits his heart broke when the prison gates slammed closed, and he couldn’t see “the flicker of a light at the end of the tunnel”.
He says his sentence was too harsh, he’s preparing for a last-ditch appeal, and he yearns for the wife and two daughters who “sustain him”. He sees them three times a year.
“You walk in there on the first day and your heart’s broken,” he says. “You’re in there and then they close the gates on you, and you’re in prison. And you’re yearning for your children and your wife and your home, and you’re looking at 14 years.”
How did it come to this?
Blagojevich wound up in jail for a crime he maintains he is innocent of. He says the courts got it wrong, and one day he’ll prove it.
The young lawyer and former amateur boxer turned Democratic politician served as the 40th Governor of Illinois from 2003 until he was impeached in 2009.
He was removed from office and then charged with corruption.
Initially, there were 18 federal counts of it – including soliciting bribes for political appointments. The most sensational were charges he’d tried to sell Barack Obama’s vacant senate seat after Obama was elected president in 2008.
Blagojevich was taped by the FBI saying “I’ve got this thing, and it’s f*****g golden. I’m just not giving it up for f*****g nothing.”
As he waited for trial, he embarked on a one-man publicity campaign.
He released a biography. Starred in an improv theatre group musical called Rod Blagojevich Superstar for charity. Hosteda weekly radio talk show.
In 2010 he met now-US President Donald Trump when he appeared in season nine of Trump’s TV show, The Celebrity Apprentice.
He said he was perfect for the show because he had “the skill and know-how to get things accomplished”.
Trump predicted he’d be one of the show’s big stars.
He praised Blagojevich’s guts and courage. Then fired him in episode four.
He was charged in April, 2009. Most of the charges related to the attempts to sell Obama’s senate seat. In August, 2010 he was convicted of one charge of lying to the FBI. The jury was hung on all of the other charges. After a mistrial, prosecutors requested a retrial.
In June, 2011, he was found guilty of 17 of 20 charges, not guilty of one, and no verdict was given on another two.
The charges relating to Obama’s senate seat all stuck, as did charges of extortion relating to state funds being directed towards a children’s hospital and racetrack. He was sentenced to 14 years.
Five counts were cast out when he appealed in 2015. His sentence was not reduced.
On March 15, 2012, Blagojevich emerged from his home to a media scrum, said goodbye to his family, and reported to prison at Federal Correctional Institution, (FCI) Englewood in Colorado.
On the outside, he was known for his flamboyant dress sense and thick mop of coiffured helmet hair (he reportedly made his aides carry a hairbrush for him).
With no access to dyes in prison, the dark mop has turned to grey, then white.
In the two interviews, he reveals his prison nickname is “Gov” or “govvie”. He spends time reading, writing, jogging, pushing weights, and doesn’t really keep up with the news.
He doesn’t talk much about his case – he’s leaving it to his lawyers, but maintains he “never crossed any lines in seeking to raise campaign contributions”.
He’s more forthcoming about the harsh reality, “bad sounds and bad smells” of life inside.
He spends a lot of time in his own head and desperately misses family.
“The sharpness of the pain that was so intense at the beginning – where sometimes you felt you would never feel anything but that pain – has with the passing of all these years, slowly and imperceptibly aged into a sadness that has found a home inside of me,” Blagojevich says.
He refused an offer of protection from white supremacists. He says he gets along better with street crims than con artists.
Like every other inmate, prison life began with him working in the kitchen.
He then taught history for more than two years in the higher security prison, he reveals.
“And I’ve got to say, my classes were always sold out. I felt like Elvis for a second, you know?” he says.
When he was sentenced last year, some inmates wrote letters on his behalf. He’s tried to help many be ready for life on the outside.
“I spent a lot of time with several of them, walking around the track and actually doing some mock job interviews, helping them try to make their case to a prospective employer that they should not be prejudiced against them because they’ve been incarcerated,” he says.
Now, he’s on mop duty to earn his $8-a-month jail salary.
“My jurisdiction has shrunk from the fifth biggest state in America to these two floors, but I don’t care what anybody says, Phil. I believe in clean government, and clean floors,” Blagojevich told Rogers.
He’s even formed a band – G-Rod and the Jailhouse Rockers – “but that sounded too gang-bangerish, and so the powers that be said just call it ‘Jailhouse Rockers’.”
He treasures his ten minutes a day on the phone with family.
And insists, even with a May, 2024 release date, he’s positive about the future.
His faith has taught him “forgiveness is mandatory,” and that it’s “liberating to not hold grudges.”
“Don’t ever quit. Even if you hit rock bottom, as I have, put faith over fear, you’ve got to go through the fire,” he says.
“Run with patience and endurance in the race that’s set before you, and if you have to, take a stand.
“And when you do it, my experience tells me, trust in God. You’re not alone. You never go alone.”