Former Inmate Offers Advice For Blagojevich

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence in a Colorado prison. Former Missouri state senator Jeff Smith served a year in federal prison on obstruction of justice charges. He offers sober advice to Blagojevich on what to expect, and what and what not to do behind bars.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Former Governor Rod Blagojevich left his house in Illinois this morning and arrived at his new residence in Colorado where he'll begin a 14-year prison sentence for corruption. Last night, he made a public statement to supporters and reporters.

ROD BLAGOJEVICH: I am proud as I leave and enter the next part of what is a dark and hard journey, that I can take with me the sense of accomplishment and the real belief that the things that I did as governor and the things I did as congressman has actually helped real, ordinary people.

CONAN: Someone with a special insight in just how dark and hard that road might be offered some words of advice to the former governor in the Chicago Tribune this morning. Former Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith spent 2010 in federal prison after he pleaded guilty on charges of obstruction of justice. In his op-ed, he offered some advice from one politician inmate to another.

So if you've done time in minimum security, call us with dos and don'ts for the disgraced former governor: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jeff Smith, now an assistant professor of politics at The New School and joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

JEFF SMITH: Thank you, Alex. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And your first...

SMITH: I'm sorry. Neal.

CONAN: That's all right. Your first tip is something that could be beneficial in most life experiences. As your grandma probably taught you, God gave you two ears, two eyes and one mouth. Use them in proportion.

SMITH: Yeah. You know, when you get to prison, everything is very confusing. It's very disorienting and can be pretty stressful. But the last thing you want to do is go around everybody asking a millions questions. You know, where is the chow hall? Does the food get any better? What night are we going to have tacos? You know, you don't need to concern yourself with that stuff. You'll learn. You just need to give it a few weeks and just try to blend in before you get out there too much.

CONAN: Prison strikes me as one of those places you don't have to worry about where you're going to be for your next appointment. Someone will tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Yeah. No. If - actually, there's something called the callout sheet which is posted every morning when you wake up. And you have to check it every night because if you miss one of those callouts, you know, they give you about five minutes. They call you on a loudspeaker. If you're not there in five minutes, there's a good chance you'll end up in the hole, which means isolation, which you don't want to be in. So you're exactly right. If you need to be somewhere, they'll come find you and take you there.

CONAN: And several of your lessons seem to involve keep your mouth shut and when you do open it, be humble.

SMITH: Yeah. No. I think if I could have only offered one piece of advice, I think you just crystallized it very well.

CONAN: And one of the things you say is that Governor Blagojevich has to be - accept the fact that he will get a nickname, and it's probably going to be governor.

Yeah, that's right. You know when I went there, immediately there were a few people who had read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I was locked up in Southeast Kentucky about seven-and-a-half hours away from St. Louis, but there were a couple of guys from St. Louis that got the St. Louis newspaper so they knew about my case. And so instantly, of course, everybody started me senator. And my boss or my prison supervisor at the warehouse, she hated it when all the inmates called me that. She'd always say, he's no better than any of you. You need - just call him Smith. And - but the fact is everybody has a nickname. Nobody goes by their actual name, and so I assume that that's what they'll be calling him.

And so yet - just because you're called governor doesn't make you one.

SMITH: Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: ...obviously. You know, he's not going to have a lot of power in the prison. So when I wrote, your nickname will be governor, accept that, but do so with deep humility, what I was trying to say is that he shouldn't think that that title makes him any better or any worse. He shouldn't run away from it because it is who he is. But he can't let it go to his head or think that he's above anybody else in the prison because, just like all the rest of them, he has a number.

And, you know, he's only going to survive if he immediately - and I'm talking like today because he didn't appear to have that humility in his press conference yesterday - if he internalizes that he's no better than anybody else in there.

CONAN: There are several things in your advice that I think anybody who's read anything about prison time is familiar with: don't stare at anybody, don't make eye contact unless somebody calls your name - that sort of thing. I was unaware that you should not remove another inmate's clothing from the dryer.

SMITH: You know, people are very, very particular about hygiene. I'm not sure. I'm no psychologist, but I attributed that just to sort of a need for control of something. You have so little control over everything when you're locked up, that you need to control something. And so for many people it's their hygiene, and they don't want anyone - they don't want to touch any doorknobs, so they walk around with napkins in their hand everywhere. And people do not want anyone else's hands on their clothes, especially their clean clothes. And so even if their clothes have been sitting in the dryer for an hour, it would be very unwise for you to go ahead and take them out.

So there's a lot of small things. I said don't dare change the channel. You know, there may be a presidential debate that Governor Blagojevich is very interested in watching, but if he walks into that TV room with 20 guys who are watching an NBA game and goes up to change the channel and says, hey, guys, this is a really important debate tonight, he's not going to last very long in there.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you who've spent time in minimum security. Any advice for former Governor Blagojevich as he begins a 14-year term today? 800-989-8225. Email: talk@npr.org. John's on the line, John with us from Charlotte.

JOHN: Hey, this is John from Charlotte. My comment is I've been at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina. And, you know, if he puts on airs and acts - says, like, hey, I'm the former governor, then he's going to have a lot of problems, because the thing in federal prison is, hey, we're all the same because we can only get $360 a month. So you're one of us now. So, you know, he has to keep that, you know, tight and close to himself that he has money or had money, because then he'll become a target if he doesn't.

CONAN: A target. And what does that mean? Are you ostracized? Are you in physical danger?

JOHN: Not physical danger, but then you'll notice that people come to you and say, hey, can you buy me, you know, some tuna from the canteen. Or there's things called soup and rice. Hey, would you mind getting me some soup or a rice - a few bags of rice when you go to the canteen? And then you'll notice that every week, they're targeting you to, hey, buy them soup and buy them things, or give me a pair of shoes, things like that.

CONAN: So, Jeff Smith, a politician's impulse might be to acquire friendships through such a technique. That's not going to work, is it?

SMITH: The last thing you want to do is to look vulnerable, and the best way to look vulnerable is to - you know, it's OK to come back. You know, if you want to do something nice for someone, that's one thing. But if somebody comes up to you and says, hey, let me get a bag of mackerel or let me get a bag of tuna, because everyone is trying to eat protein. And so that's a very desirable thing from the canteen. If you indulge them one time, just as the listener said, they're going to be at you every week. And they're going to tell the other people in their cellblock, hey, that dude's an easy mark. You want something, go to him. He's got money. And so you can't show any sign of vulnerability.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN: Oh, it's my pleasure.

CONAN: And, Jeff Smith, one of the things you say is go ahead and play some sports, but you may not want to consider basketball.

SMITH: Well, you know, actually, basketball is one of the things that got me through. I played basketball my whole life, and so it really helped me, you know, being able to play. But it was also the place, you know, I got in a couple scrapes on the basketball court. And one guy who kind of had it out for me three days before I left just gave me a big forearm shiver in the middle of a basketball game. And so what you have to realize is if you're going to play sports that are contact sports or that allow for any contact - basketball, softball - then anybody who has it out for you, there's a good chance that they'll exploit that opportunity and try to hurt you. So it's something he should definitely look out for.

CONAN: Let's go next to Bruce, and Bruce with us from Huntington, New York.

BRUCE: Yeah. Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Bruce.

BRUCE: I enjoy your show, by the way.

CONAN: Thank you.

BRUCE: I had spend some time in a minimum security facility in New Jersey, a little over a year, and I certainly feel for Mr. Blagojevich having to spend as much time as he does have to there. But it's incredibly humbling. And the fact is that if I had advice to give him, it's pretty much keep to himself, behave yourself, do what you're told because you're in enough trouble as it is and the last thing you need is to find more. Because it's easy to get in trouble in an atmosphere like this, in an environment like this, which is highly stressful and highly charged with so many people.

And it's stressful enough being away from your family and the people you care about, but you're amongst a group of strangers who are all in the same boat as you. And it can be a very highly charged atmosphere, even amongst people that are relatively intelligent and understand what they have to do to survive.

CONAN: You know, it's interesting listening to you and the other callers and to Jeff Smith. We all read about, you know, Club Fed, you know, the minimum security where prisoners got to do a lot of different things. This doesn't sound so nice.

BRUCE: No. It isn't nice. The only thing I can tell you is that there's no - certainly no Club Feb in my life. It's something I will always take with me and something I will never forget. I never want to paint a picture that it was living hell or that this was the worst thing in the world. But the only thing I can say to anyone is the loss of your freedom is punishment enough.

I can tell you that my first 24 hours in that experience - and my experience was not horrific in any way, shape or form. But the loss of my freedom and looking out and seeing faces, seeing off the wire(ph) was enough for somebody like me to - and will be enough for someone like him when he looks out and realize that this is not a place you can leave. This is no Club Fed. This is no enjoyable atmosphere. This is a difficult place to live in day by day, night by night. And whether you're spending one week or 10 years, the experience is something that does scar you. I don't care who you are.

CONAN: Bruce, thanks very much for the call.

BRUCE: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator and a former inmate in federal prison about what former Governor Rod Blagojevich might expect when he serves his sentence, which began today at a minimum security facility in Colorado. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And this email from Chris, who's listening to us in Florida, he says: 15 months at the federal prison camp in Atlanta, respect is very important. Keep your distance. Never break in line. Don't ask what fellow inmates did to get in there. Humility, as your speaker said, is paramount. You don't say, what was your crime?

SMITH: You don't say it. Well, here's how it kind of works. When you get there, most people show their paperwork. You know, they get someone to mail in what they did because people in your cellblock, they want to know that you weren't a snitch or that you didn't wear a wire on somebody. If you can't show your paperwork...

CONAN: Not Governor Blagojevich's problem. It's kind of the other way around.

SMITH: Not Governor Blagojevich's problem, and it wasn't my problem. But there are people in there that can't show their paperwork, or they have a short amount of time, given the crime. Let's say they say they're - they got in trouble for having a certain amount of crack, but they only have two-and-a-half years, people won't go near them because they know that based on the mandatory minimums, they should have a lot longer than that. But since they only have that little amount of time, they must have snitched on other people. So automatically, they're suspect. So - I'm sorry, your direct question was about whether or not you should talk about your crime.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: You shouldn't. If people ask you about it, you might give a very, very brief explanation, but you don't ever ask anybody else about theirs because they're - they want - you know, what does he want to know about my crime for? What's he trying to figure out? What's his angle, you know? Is he trying to get a time cut by telling the prison staff something that I did that I didn't get prosecuted for? You just don't - you don't go there.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Dave, Dave with us from Twin Falls in Idaho.

DAVE: Yes. I would say be quiet. Don't ask other people's crimes because you don't want to find out that somebody's doing 10 years and you're doing a year.

CONAN: I see. Somebody else is always going to be doing more time somewhere than you are.

DAVE: Yeah. You don't want to bring that up. And I was very fortunate. My wife was a lead person at a factory that she worked at, and she was able to get visits set up for people that hadn't - they might not have seen a visitor in over 10 years. And she's able to get it for any races, and that made me a rather popular individual. And...

CONAN: So some sort of influence never hurts.

DAVE: Not a bit.

CONAN: All right. Dave, thanks very much.

DAVE: If he's just quiet and doesn't worry about his hair too much, I think he'll be all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: One of those maybe-too-difficult things. Yeah, that - humility again, which may be difficult.

SMITH: The caller mentioned the visits. You know, visits are really kind of your lifeblood when you're in there. And as the caller said, there are many people that haven't had a visit in 10 years, maybe have lost touch with their family, have children that they haven't seen or heard from in a decade or longer. And so, you know, if you're a listener out there and you have a friend who's been locked up, I would just encourage you to reach out to that person, write them at the least and potentially even visit them, because it really helps. It really helps people get through the week. I know prisoners who - they know they're going to have a visit in three or four months, and they're thinking about it, looking forward to that every day. And that's really important in there, to have something to look forward to.

CONAN: One of the most puzzling pieces of advice you wrote for the governor was your last one: Don't eat the Snickers.

SMITH: Yes. Right when you get to prison, they'll probably show you a mandatory sexual assault prevention video. And in the one I saw, there was a man who was an inmate warning everyone not to eat the Snickers bar that may be waiting for you on your bed, under your pillow. The man in the video had eaten the one, unwittingly signaling the - a predator who left it for him that he was ready and willing for some type of intimacy. So everybody watching the video laughed, but, you know, I hope - you know, I tried to take the message to heart. I didn't accept sweets when a couple of people offered them to me. Governor Blagojevich, I hope, isn't faced with anything like this. But since that's sort of a code in prison, you just - you don't want to accept the Snickers bar or an ice cream or anything sweet.

CONAN: Interesting. You also said: Do not talk with the correctional officers, the COs. There may be a lot of divisions among the inmates, but there is really only two teams.

SMITH: That's right. It's you against them. And if you're seen as - you know, if you're out and about talking - you know, if the CO comes up to Governor Blagojevich, the correctional officer, and says, hey, tell me about big city politics. I want to hear all about it, and Governor Blagojevich spends 15 or 20 minutes, you know, regaling him with stories, everybody's going to assume that he's snitching, you know, that he's talking about this guy in my cellblock's got a shank, and here's where it is. So I would advise him to stay away. You know, don't talk to the COs unless they talk to you.

CONAN: Jeff Smith, thank very much for your advice.

SMITH: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Jeff Smith, now a professor of politics and advocacy at The New School, joined us from our bureau in New York. You could find a link to his Chicago Tribune piece "12 Tips for Blagojevich" at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. If you're in Washington and want to see a live broadcast, go to National Geographic. And this is TALK OF THE NATION.

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