WASHINGTON (CNN) — Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is set to be sentenced on Tuesday following his conviction on numerous corruption charges. He faces a sentence that could be up to nearly 13 years in federal prison.
So what’s a federal prison sentence like after you’ve endured a high-profile political corruption trial? CNN spoke with Jack Abramoff, the infamous lobbyist who spent more than three years in prison on corruption charges, who shared some words of advice for McDonnell.
Jeremy Diamond, CNN: What’s the most important thing for Gov. McDonnell to know as he looks at some serious prison time?
Jack Abramoff: His status won’t afford him any measure of grandeur over any other prisoner. In fact, it may cause him to have a few moments of discomfort. The prison system is full — both on the inmate and staff level — of some people who resent people who have had success in life. To the degree that he is able to keep his head down, get his time served as quietly as possible, that would probably benefit him very much.
CNN: What’s the main thing that helped you get through your time in prison?
Abramoff: First, my family was essential. He’s going to have more difficulty from that point, obviously, given what’s transpired. My wife visited me every weekend –185 weekends. He won’t have, unfortunately, that luxury, but hopefully the rest of his family and friends will be able to visit him frequently.
So family, faith. And for me, and I think for many others, a sense of humor. Be able to laugh at least to yourself at the absurdity of what is happening in your life. And also the fact is that no matter what his sentence is, it’s unlikely that he’s going to end up with a sentence that’s going to keep him in prison the rest of his life. There is an exit.
When he enters prison — and it’s hard to see it on that day — but that day is the worst day of the entire process, a process that’s been extremely humiliating and horrible and the worst possible life event. But the day you enter is the beginning of the process that ends it for you.
CNN: There’s a saying that you only serve two days in prison — the first and the last — is there any truth to that? (Ed. note: This is from “The Wire”)
Abramoff: No. No. You serve every second in prison.
But no matter how bad it is, it could be worse. You could be in a prison where people are getting raped and killed all the time. You could be in a prison in another country being sadistically tortured. There are all sorts of things that could be going on that are worse.
CNN: Did you have any misconceptions about prison before you started serving your time?
Abramoff: I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know anybody who had gone to prison.
Nevertheless it was horrific, from minute one to the last minute. You’re confined, you have no privacy, there’s capricious stealing by the staff and by the inmates. Your property and anything that’s of value to you is constantly at risk.
Sleep is very difficult in that environment. Getting an hour or two of sleep in a row is often very, very difficult. It’s horrible.
And of course you have no control over your life. Particularly for somebody who is in the public life, that is particularly bad because the inmates and everybody around you and your family on the outside are hearing all sorts of things and you have no ability to affect the narrative in any way.
CNN: What shocked or surprised you when you got to prison?
Abramoff: Some of the impressions I had at the beginning, they weren’t fully shocking to me, was that upon entry how the other white-collar prisoners (greeted me). The white-collar guys sort of take care of the white-collar guys and the drug guys sort of take care of the drug guys. Somebody new comes into the prison, the other inmates help them get acclimated to the experience.
CNN: So you had some people who helped you when you got there?
Abramoff: Everybody. Everybody, basically, was extremely helpful. The inmates go out of their way to help somebody acclimate to this new world, which is a nightmare.
CNN: So is that the first thing Gov. McDonnell should do if he does go to prison, to find those people who will help him?
Abramoff: They’ll find him. They’ll find him. As soon as he walks onto the compound, they’ll come up to him and introduce themselves and try to be helpful. Invariably you have people at the prison who are decent people. Most of the people, frankly, there are decent people who’ve made mistakes in life and done things that they shouldn’t have done, but, frankly, they’re decent guys.
It’s more likely than not that he’ll be met with people trying to help and make it less miserable for him if possible and help him settle in.
CNN: Do you have some tips for Gov. McDonnell to keep busy and make his time go by faster?
Abramoff: Yeah, I mean, basically, stay busy. Prisoners do different things. Some write, some read. Some engage in athletic events and working out and some do all of that. Some get involved in the religious groups that they’re part of. Some get involved in hobbies that are permitted in prison. There are plenty of ways to stay busy. The most important thing is to stay busy.
One of the dangers for white-collar prisoners is they get in there and they’re so stunned by this new world and they reflect on their old world, and it puts them into a depressing mode that sort of leaves them almost catatonic and they don’t get going.
CNN: Did that happen to you?
Abramoff: No, I adjust pretty quickly to wherever I’m at. But I did see it in other people.
I remember visibly one guy who was a banker and he came in and he just sat with his head in his hands and I said — he had 70 something months ahead of him: ‘You’re never going to survive this unless you start getting busy.’
CNN: Did your political skills help you in prison?
Abramoff: This is a place where he is going to interact with human beings 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ability to be sympathetic to other people’s plights, the ability to be empathetic, these are all things that politicians either need to develop or are good at faking.
The most important thing in prison is are you a genuine person. Prisoners can quickly pick out who’s a phony, who’s lying, who’s a BS artist.
I was in there when somebody who’s very high-profile acted like that. And people shunned him. And then you’re dealing with not only the people from the outside, but the inside. And that’s too much.
CNN: Do you think Gov. McDonnell will be watched more?
He may be watched more and treated more harshly, as indeed I was for the first year and a half, only from the point of view of certain [correctional officers] wanting to go home to the bar and brag about what they did to the governor, or something like that.
CNN: You were saying that largely the other inmates treated you like an equal, but there were some instances when the staff treated you differently?
Abramoff: The only way to deal with that is to just keep your head down, be humble, be obedient, follow every rule and just be as courteous and unassuming and unprepossessing as you can. That’s the only way around it.