Jeff Smith: Advice for Blago on His First Day in Jail

As former Illinois Rod Balgojevich spends his first full day behind bars, contributing RP Jeff Smith offers him a few educated tips:

After spending a year in federal prison on an obstruction of justice charge stemming from a 2004 congressional campaign violation, I have a few tips for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as he heads for prison.

1. As your grandma probably taught you, God gave you two ears, two eyes and one mouth — use them in proportion.

• When you get to prison, listen, watch and learn. You’ll have a hundred questions on your first day and in one month you will know the answer to 90 of them without having to ask and risk looking stupid.

•Don’t ever ask anybody about their crime. If they want to tell you what they did, fine. But you won’t know if they’re telling the truth. And if you ask and strike a nerve with someone, the result may not be pretty.

•Don’t talk about how you got railroaded. So did everyone else.

•Don’t ask anything about anyone’s family; it will be a sore subject with many, especially those who have not seen or heard from their children or ex-wives in years.

•Don’t ever talk about how much time you have. Someone else has more.

2. Embrace your background, but don’t try to be a politician.

•The prison guards and administration will probably resent your presence, as it will mean added scrutiny on prison operations. Your charm will not work on them, so don’t try it. Instead, be as deferential as possible and try to blend in.

•You will have a nickname. It will probably be “Governor.” Accept that, but do so with deep humility.

• As a politician you were known for your gregariousness. But prison isn’t the Loop; not everyone wants to shake your hand. In fact, because of a collective obsession with hygiene and a fear of illness, no one in prison shakes hands — they bump fists. That doesn’t mean you should stroll down the compound fist-bumping dudes on your first day. As a hoops announcer might advise a star player in a big game, don’t press too hard; let the game come to you.

3. Get in the best shape of your life.

•Unlike most people, you are coming to prison in great shape. But you can always be in better shape. Set personal goals — maybe you want to run a marathon in prison; maybe you want to bench press 300 pounds. Working out every day will help pass the time, keep your endorphins pumping and keep you in a better frame of mind.

•Use your knowledge of running to help others lose weight. Inmates can control almost nothing, and since their body is one of the few things they can change, most work assiduously to improve themselves. Going running with others and helping them get in shape may be an effective way to build alliances.

•Play sports, but if your taste runs to contact sports such as basketball, be careful. Some people who have it out for you may exploit the opportunity to try to hurt you on the athletic field and not get in trouble for it.

4. Correspond with anyone who writes you.

When I went away I had 9,000 numbers on my cellphone. After resigning and pleading guilty, I never heard from 8,000 of those people again. I imagine you have had a similar experience. Like me, I suspect you have gained a newfound appreciation for those people who have reached out to offer support. So, write back to everyone who writes. If you correspond diligently, mail call will be one of the few times of each day to which you can look forward.

5. Forgive your enemies.

In politics, you reward your friends, punish your enemies. In prison, it is very difficult to reward anyone and impossible to punish them. More to the point, you can’t do time if you’re bitter. The time will kill you. So let go of any anger you may have toward the U.S. attorney, or people who snitched on you or friends who abandoned you. If you don’t let go of it, you won’t make it through your time.

6. Don’t complain about how bad your prison job is, and don’t brag about how good it is.

•Try to get a job working in the rec center or as a warehouse clerk, two of the most pleasant jobs in prison. But if you don’t get one, don’t complain about it. Just as is the case in any other environment, no one likes complainers. But in prison, people really don’t like them, because it’s a given that everyone is miserable.

7. Learn something new.

•Whether it’s woodworking or weight lifting, Bible study or hydroponics, there will likely be opportunities to try things you’ve never tried before. I played drums in the church choir. And I learned how to play gospel, not to mention a little Scripture. Not bad for an agnostic Jew.

•Read all the books you wanted to read, but never had time. Then read all the ones you should have read, but didn’t want to.

•When the novelty wears off and the people who approach you are doing more than rubbernecking, don’t discount the possibility of making lifelong friends. You will meet some of the most fascinating people you have ever met, from all walks of life. Listen to their stories, and learn from them.

8. Use your unique knowledge and skills to help other inmates.

•This doesn’t mean you should manage the campaign for the dude who aspires to be the next head of the prison’s Aryan Brotherhood chapter. But you do have a unique perspective and there will be some inmates who are curious about politics. Answer their questions, humbly.

•Use your legal background to help prisoners who are bringing appeals pro se (representing themselves), but do so quietly so that you aren’t swamped with requests.

9. Don’t snitch, under any circumstances.

•The only people in prison who have it harder than child molesters are snitches. You need to learn how to see things (weapons, illegal drugs, people making hooch, pornography, etc) without seeing them; that is, learn to look away before anyone has seen you see the contraband.

•Stay away from snitches, and in general, watch the company you keep: in prison, you are your car (car = the people you “ride” with).

•If you committed other crimes for which you were not prosecuted, or are plotting any, don’t discuss them. As I’m sure you are now aware, you never know who’s listening.

•Don’t be seen talking to the Cos (correctional officers). Just like you could be cordial toRepublicans but not be best friends with them without arousing suspicion amongDemocrats, you cannot be “friends” with the guards. Sure, there may be gangs and racial/ethnic division among prisoners. But there are really only two teams: inmates versus the prison. When guards try to get you to regale them with stories, resist the impulse to be on stage again. Do not forget this rule.

10. Don’t break prison rules.

•This may seem contradictory. The last rule suggested that you should tolerate prison rule-breaking — and you should. But try not to violate rules yourself.

•Don’t gamble. If you lose, you’ll be in debt and you do not want to be compromised like that. If you win, someone is likely to be very angry and may figure out a way to get his money back — a way that might leave you unrecognizable.

•Don’t “hold” anything someone asks you to hold, even if it looks innocuous; it’s probably got contraband inside of it.

•If you need a hustle to survive (i.e., stealing and selling food from the kitchen, washing and ironing others’ clothes), try not to encroach on someone else’s hustle. Presumably, others will need the stamps (money) more than you. Competition can be fierce.

11. Don’t look for trouble.

•Don’t change the TV channel, especially if women’s track is on, or “Ice Loves Coco.” There is an inscrutable yet stringent seniority-based regime when it comes to TV watching, and your celebrity does not entitle you to alter it in any way.

•Don’t take anyone’s clothes out of the dryer without asking. Inmates are extremely particular about their clothes, whether they are laundered appropriately and who touches them. Remember, inmates can’t control much. Don’t interfere with one of the few things they can control.

•Don’t stare.

•There is generally no reason to make eye contact with people unless they say your name.

12 Don’t eat the Snickers.

• You’ll go through orientation. You will be shown a mandatory sexual assault prevention video featuring a guy warning you not to eat the Snickers bar that may be waiting for you on your bed in your cell. (The actor ate the one left under his pillow, unwittingly signaling the predator who left it for him that he was ready and willing.) All the guys watching the video will laugh. But take the video’s message to heart: Don’t accept sweets from anyone.

Good luck, Governor. One day at a time.

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from the Chicago Tribune)

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