Former Gov. George Ryan spent just hours at a halfway house on Chicago’s West Side this morning before he was released and sent to his Kankakee home, where he will be on home confinement until he completes his 6 ½-year sentence.
Ryan will not have to wear an electronic monitor while under house arrest, according to his lawyer, former Gov. Jim Thompson.
"I think it was a wise decision by the Bureau of Prisons, but it's not something I asked for, it's not something he asked for. So it is in no way preferential treatment,” Thompson said.
Ryan left the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. at about 1 a.m., arrived at Thompson's home around 4:30 a.m. in sweats and changed clothes, Thompson said. He was processed at the halfway house and arrived in Kankakee at about 10:30 a.m.
Thompson said he suspected the Bureau of Prisons allowed Ryan to bypass the halfway house because of his age. He will be 79 next month. "A halfway house wouldn't be helpful to him,” Thompson said. “They teach people how to write checks, how to construct a resume, how to look for a job."
Thompson said there was no point in Ryan taking the place of another inmate in a halfway house if others would benefit more from the services.
"When you leave the penitentiary, you are sent to either a halfway house or to home confinement," Thompson said. "Home confinement's a regular program of the Bureau of Prisons, just like a halfway house, because they can't fit everybody in a halfway house. So apparently the Bureau of Prisons decided home confinement was a better outcome."
Thompson said Ryan will have to follow the rules of the halfway house even though he is at home.
Speaking to a crowd of reporters outside Ryan’s Kankakee home late this morning, Thompson said Ryan was inside with more than a dozen relatives. He said the former governor would not be coming outside to address the media.
"He's doing fine inside. He's with 17 kids and grandkids," said Thompson as many of Ryan’s relatives, mostly children, gathered on the front stoop smiling and occasionally hugging one another.
Thompson said he has not spoken with Ryan about how it feels to come home after the death of his wife, Lura Lynn. "I imagine it's very hard. Just as I imagine it's been very hard ever since she died and it's been very hard ever since he left her. At least he's got closure now with his family."
Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke also insisted that Ryan did not receive special treatment. He said BOP officials would have made the decision based on several factors – including whether Ryan had a stable environment to go back to in Kankakee.
“There is no requirement to actually spend a minimum amount of time in the halfway house,” Burke said. “How much time is based on the needs of the offender. Whether or not he has financial support, family support, an approved release residence. His health issues.”
Burke said Ryan knew he would bypass the halfway house home confinement long before he left the federal prison.
“To surprise the inmate with something at the last minute would not be conducive to transitioning back to society,” he said. “It wouldn’t do any good to keep secrets from inmates.”
As for Ryan’s release from the prison in the middle of the night, Burke said that call would have been made by BOP officials who have to consider “special characteristics that an inmate may present.”
When asked if a former governor with intense media scrutiny would be on such characteristic, Burke replied, “That would be one thing.”
A somber and silent Ryan had arrived at the halfway house shortly before 7 a.m. Wearing a gray sports coat, white shirt and maroon tie, Ryan was surrounded by TV cameras as he walked down the street and entered the four-story red brick building.
Ryan smiled tightly as he refused to answer questions from reporters. Ryan's son, George Ryan Jr. and Thompson accompanied Ryan into the house.
After Ryan checked in, Thompson came back out and told reporters "today is another step in a long journey for George Ryan. . .He would like me to tell you he's grateful to leave the penitentiary. He's grateful also for the encouragement and support from many people. He has paid a severe price. The loss of his wife and brother while he was in the penitentiary, the loss of his pension, his office, his good name and 5 1/2 years of imprisonment. Now near 80 years old, that is a significant punishment. But he is going to go forward."
Ryan left the prison early this morning and managed to escape the notice of media camped at the facility. The first indication that Ryan has been released was around 6:45 a.m. when he left a building down the street and started walking toward the halfway house.
His son put his left hand on his father and guided him out the door. Ryan kept his head down, his hands in his pockets as he talked to his son and walked slowly through the knot of TV cameras.
As they neared the halfway house, a worker opened the door and tried to clear a path through the cameras. Ryan raised his head, his hands still in his pockets, his son to his right, as he walked down five steps and into the halfway house.
Thompson said Ryan didn't speak much during the van trip to Chicago.
"He didn't talk much, just small talk," Thompson said. "He looks good. He's been lifting weights. . .He knows something about carpentry now.
"He tied his own tie this morning, he hasn't forgotten that," Thompson said. "He's in decent spirits. He has to become accustomed to seeing things differently. . .We came down Michigan Avenue and he was looking at the lights left over from Christmas. That was sort of wonderful, I think. He hasn’t seen the city of Chicago in 5 1/2 years.”
Thompson said people forget that Ryan "was a very good governor." But he added that Ryan "is not bitter, he's not angry. He's accepting. This has been a long fight."
Ryan completed more than 5 years of a a 6 1/2-year prison sentence in Terre Haute, Ind. for a corruption conviction. Ryan entered prison on Nov. 7, 2007. His wife of more than 50 years, Lura Lynn, died of cancer in June 2011.
The halfway house, operated by the Salvation Army a few blocks east of the United Center, has been a way station for about 20,000 men and women since opening in 1975. Many corrupt Illinois politicians have finished their sentences at the facility. Among the most recent graduates was former Chicago Ald. Edward Vrdolyak.
Ryan's conviction for fraud, racketeering and other charges was the culmination of the federal Operation Safe Road investigation that exposed rampant bribery in state driver's license facilities while he was secretary of state as well as misdeeds as governor.
After a six-month trial, a federal jury convicted Ryan in 2006 of steering millions of dollars in state business to lobbyists and friends in return for vacations, gifts and other benefits to Ryan and his family.
The conviction overshadowed Ryan's long career in government.
The Kankakee native rose from speaker of the Illinois House to win statewide election as lieutenant governor, secretary of state and then one term as governor. His actions as governor included placing a moratorium on the death penalty and emptying death row, moves that won him international acclaim.
Thompson said Ryan may become involved in death penalty issues after his sentence ends in July. "It's way too soon to tell."