CHICAGO – When former Gov. George Ryan steps out of prison today 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 three other governors’ 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.
Ryan’s wife and brother died while he was behind bars. And the 78-year-old has lost weight by walking the grounds and doing other exercise 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 6½-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 the hospital but not to go to her funeral.
His own health has suffered. He’s dealt with kidney disease and infected teeth.
But one opportunity that might present itself involves something he helped bring about. Activists say Ryan could play a national role as a spokesman against the death penalty.
Ryan switched from the pro- to anti-death penalty camp, clearing death row while he was governor. Some critics questioned Ryan’s motivation, saying it was a political diversion. But Warden, also 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 one former Illinois politician who also served time for corruption.
“You never see people enjoying life in prison,” said James 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 Terra 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 spent time at the same halfway house, said Ryan will spend a lot of time complying with rules, filling out forms and getting the 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 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.
Ryan’s exit from prison doesn’t mean there will no longer be a former Illinois governor behind bars.
His successor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, is serving a 14-year prison sentence on corruption charges, including allegations that he sought to sell President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich’s corruption, by comparison, were crimes especially outrageous — 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 cracking down 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.
Morrison says that, overall, the mechanism for catching corrupt Illinois politicians has improved since Ryan.
“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.”