By Michael Tarm
CHICAGO (AP) -- George Ryan on Wednesday will become the latest former Illinois governor to go through a prison door. This time, he's headed out.
Ryan is being released from a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., after serving five-plus years for corruption. He's expected to spend the first few weeks at a halfway house in Chicago and then return to his home in Kankakee, about 60 miles to the south.
Once reacclimated to life on the outside, Ryan will discover an Illinois that has grown less tolerant of the kind of wheeling and dealing that led to the imprisonment of him and his successor, Rod Blagojevich.
"Public trust really started to falter under Ryan, then it imploded and sunk under Blagojevich," said Cindi Canary, the former head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Historically, Illinois governors haven't been especially adept at getting a message that there are consequences to violating the public trust. Of the state's last seven governors, four have ended up going to prison.
Since Ryan went to prison, the state has also changed because of his legal actions during his one term as governor: Following the Republican's lead, Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011.
Behind bars, there have been personal tragedies too, including the death of his wife and brother.
Change for the 78-year-old has also included weight loss from walking prison grounds, said friend Rob Warden, who visited Ryan a few months ago.
"When I saw him, he was upbeat," said Warden, who is also the executive director of the Chicago-based Center on Wrongful Convictions. "He has reconciled himself to what happened to him." But Ryan, he added, also 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 1/2-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.
"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 halfway 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. Laski called it all "boring and a waste of time."
Ryan's exit from prison doesn't mean there will no longer be a former Illinois governor behind bars.
Blagojevich, a Democrat, last year began serving his 14-year prison sentence on corruption charges, including allegations that he sought to sell President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
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.
Overall, the mechanism for catching corrupt Illinois politicians has improved since Ryan, said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
"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."
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