Ex-governor emerges from prison into changed world
George Ryan, former governor of Illinois, has served five years for racketeering and conspiracy. While George Ryan was in prison, his wife and brother died, and Illinois enacted reforms meant to thwart political wheeling and dealing.
Charles Rex Arbogast / AP / File
When former Illinois Gov. George Ryan steps out of prison on Wednesday after serving five-plus years for corruption, he will return to a life altered by personal tragedy and to a state altered by his and his successor's legacy of corruption.
Ryan, who is headed to a halfway house in Chicago, will encounter an Illinois that has enacted reforms meant to thwart the kind of wheeling and dealing the Republican was accused of engaging in. The state has also changed because of Ryan's legal actions as governor: Following his lead, Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011.
His personal tragedies include the death of his wife and brother while Ryan was behind bars. Change for the 78-year-old has also included weight loss from walking the grounds at his Terre Haute, Ind., prison, said friend Rob Warden, who visited Ryan a few months ago and has corresponded with him over his years behind bars.
"When I saw him, he was upbeat," said Warden, who is also an anti-capital punishment activist. "He has reconciled himself to what happened to him." At the same time, said Warden, Ryan still maintains that the actions for which he was convicted in 2006 never crossed the line into criminality.
Jurors convicted Ryan on multiple charges, including racketeering and conspiracy. They agreed that, among other crimes, he had steered state business to insiders as secretary of state and then as governor in exchange for vacations and gifts. He began serving a 6 ½-year prison sentence in November 2007 and is being released early into a halfway house under a work-release program.
Thanks to his long-running legal saga, Ryan comes out of prison with no money, his attorneys have said. His state pension was yanked.
The most jarring change for Ryan is that his wife of 55 years, Lura Lynn, died in 2011. He was allowed to visit her in hospital but not to go to her funeral.
His own health has suffered. He's dealt with kidney disease and infected teeth.
It's unclear how Ryan might support himself. He became a celebrity among activists devoted to abolishing the death penalty and they say he could play a role as their national spokesman, possibly going on speaking tours across the country.
Ryan switched from the pro- to anti-death penalty camp in the early 2000s, clearing death row while he was governor. Some critics questioned Ryan's motivation, saying it was a political diversion. But Warden, the executive director of the Chicago-based Center on Wrongful Convictions, and others disagree.
"He's stepping into a changed world — and it's a changed world partly because of the leadership he showed (opposing capital punishment)," said Diann Rust-Tierney, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Before he even endeavors to take on post-prison challenges or opportunities, Ryan will take in the pleasure of no longer being behind bars, said former Chicago city clerk Jim Laski, who was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in 2006.
"You never see people enjoying life in prison," said Laski, who recalled the first days after his release. "Suddenly, you're seeing people walk down the street, kids coming out of school. ... It's like, 'Wow, I'm back in society again.'"
For at least a few weeks, Ryan will have to sleep at the halfway house, though he can wear his own clothes, use a cellphone and even drive. He will have to take classes on basic life skills, including how to write a check, said Scott Fawell, Ryan's former chief of staff who also served a sentence at Terre Haute on related charges and went to the same half-way house.
"It's all baby steps and this is a pretty big step where you haven't been able to leave the premises, and haven't had freedom in years," he said. "You get a lot of things that are pretty basic to most people."
Laski, who was at the same halfway house, said Ryan will spend a lot of time complying with rules, filling out forms and getting signatures from one authority after another.
"It's boring and a waste of time," he complained, saying halfway houses are primarily designed for convicted felons with no place to go to.
Ryan will likely be allowed to leave for church services and eventually will get to move back to his spacious home in Kankakee, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.
His departure from prison follows a rich if ignominious history in Illinois of ex-governors arriving in and departing from prison. Of the state's last seven governors, four have ended up going to prison.
Ryan's exit from prison doesn't mean there will no longer be a former Illinois governor behind bars.
Blagojevich's corruption, by comparison, were especially egregious — corruption "on steroids," said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
"His penalty is also on steroids," he said about Blagojevich's sentence and the pointed message it sent to would-be corrupt leaders.
As a direct result of Ryan's misdeeds, a number of ethical safeguards were shored up, including independently-confirmed inspectors generals for each constitutional officer, and a crackdown on political work on state time.
Cindi Canary, the former head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said there are signs Illinois residents' confidence in politicians is rebounding.
"Public trust really started to falter under Ryan, then it imploded and sunk under Blagojevich," she said.
Overall, the mechanism for catching corrupt Illinois politicians has improved since Ryan, Morrison said.
"Ryan and Blagojevich came of age in a culture that tolerated a fair amount of rule-bending," Morrison said. "Everyone has to know now that you can't bend the rules."