Soon after ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was handed a stiff prison sentence — 14 years in a federal pen — another Illinois political figure who had done time offered some sage advice: tell the feds you just can’t stop drinking.
Scott Fawell, a former top aide to a different convicted governor, George Ryan, shaved time off his six-and-a-half-year sentence by entering a drug and alcohol rehab program at the federal prison camp in Yankton, S.D. After completing the nine-month regimen, Fawell got nearly a year’s credit in addition to time off for good behavior, serving just four years.
“It’s the only game in town,” he told ABC News, because parole is no longer available in the federal prison system.
A few days ago, Fawell contacted the Blagojevich defense team to offer some guidance. Now, Blagojevich is asking for drug and alcohol counseling at the minimum security prison in Englewood, Colo. U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel has agreed to the request, though the final decision is up to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
During his two trials on corruption charges, Blagojevich never mentioned a drug or alcohol problem. But Fawell says it doesn’t take much to qualify for prison rehab — just an admission of regular drinking, such as knocking back five or more drinks a week.
“They set the bar pretty low, telling you five drinks a week makes you a problem drinker,” said Fawell.
Fawell said he, like many first-time convicts, did drink more heavily before reporting to prison: “You have more time on your hands and you’re nervous about what prison will be like.” He told ABC News “any lawyer worth their salt” knows to ask for drug and alcohol treatment for clients headed to a federal prison.
But U.S. prison officials were quick to splash some cold water on that theory. “We’re on the lookout for people trying to game the system,” said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons. “We only take those with demonstrated, documented substance abuse problems who can get real benefit from our programs.”
And with beds in rehab facilities at a premium, Burke told ABC News, applicants must have solid evidence to back up their claims. Blagojevich, who must report to prison March 15, could get as much as two years off his 14-year-sentence for good behavior.
If Blagojevich gets his wish — and is sent to Englewood — one of his fellow inmates will be Jeffrey Skilling, the onetime president of Enron, who is serving 24 years for his role in his company’s collapse.