Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was let out of a federal prison in Indiana in the dead of night early Wednesday and checked briefly into a Chicago halfway house before he was released — in a surprise decision — to his home to finish out his 61/2-year sentence on home confinement.
The quick turn of events allowed Ryan, who turns 79 next month, to elude a horde of media gathered at the prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and then slip from the halfway house on the Near West Side undetected several hours later.
By 10:30 a.m., Ryan had an emotional reunion with 17 of his children and grandchildren at his longtime Kankakee home, according to his attorney, former Gov. Jim Thompson. Later in the day, Ryan’s daughter, Jeanette, smiled as she left through a rear entrance. “We are very happy he’s home,” she said.
Home confinement for Ryan means he won’t have to face weeks or months at the Salvation Army halfway house where many of the state’s other disgraced politicians have had to take up residence.
The move struck some as one more backroom deal cut by a longtime political insider, but Thompson and U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials denied that Ryan received special treatment.
Thompson said he was surprised by the accommodation and that he didn’t know it was being planned for Ryan until Wednesday morning.
“It’s not something I asked for, it’s not something he (Ryan) asked for, so it is in no way preferential treatment,” Thompson said.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesman in Washington declined to say how many inmates like Ryan go directly to home confinement in the final months of their sentences, but the agency’s website made it clear that the ordinary route would be to go first to a halfway house.
The Bureau of Prisons won’t discuss specific inmates, but spokesman Chris Burke said officials decide each inmate’s placement on an individual basis after assessing everything from financial stability and family ties to any emotional or medical issues such as drug or alcohol addiction.
As for the overnight departure, Burke said prisons officials consider the disruption to the prison as well as inmate safety.
“These issues are considered with any inmate — that he get safely from point A to point B,” Burke said.
At least one other well-known defendant, convicted insurance broker Michael Segal, 69, was allowed last year to skip the halfway house.
Court records in Segal’s case revealed that officials at the prison in Oxford, Wis., where he was held, recommended he be released directly to home confinement because he “has few re-entry needs.”
Several veteran attorneys who spoke to the Tribune on Wednesday said that at his age, Ryan doesn’t need help transitioning back to life on the outside either. Among the classes offered at the halfway house are how to write a check and what to wear on a job interview.
“For someone like George Ryan, who’s (almost) 79 years old, he’s not a person who needs to find a job or needs help transitioning,” attorney Marc Martin said. “He’s essentially retired.”
The attorneys also said the Salvation Army’s halfway house has limited resources and that inmates of Ryan’s age and stable background make good candidates for home release to alleviate crowding there.
“I do not know the Bureau of Prisons to ever make deals with anyone, I don’t care who they are or who their lawyer is,” said attorney Jeffrey Steinback.
Yet that doesn’t always explain why other older high-profile inmates — including William Hanhardt, a former Chicago police chief of detectives in his 80s — recently had to serve time at the halfway house. However, former Chicago Ald. Edward Vrdolyak, 75, who also spent time in the halfway house, was mandated to serve time there in a judge’s sentencing order.
While Ryan will awaken Thursday at his Kankakee home, he clearly will be under more restrictions than when he left for prison more than five years ago.
He can’t leave without permission. He can’t enjoy a drink. He will be subject to overnight calls from prison officials. He will have to submit to random tests for drugs and alcohol. Though he is out of prison, Ryan is still a federal inmate.
“They will call him up at 2 a.m. and say, ‘What’s your U.S. Marshal number?'” said Patrick Boyce, who spent time in federal prison for securities fraud and now runs a consulting business that teaches prisoners about the penitentiary system. “Ryan will repeat it, they will say thank you, and hang up.”
He is confined to his home except for work — if he decides to get a job — or other approved movements, including going to church and medical visits. Burke said “certain social functions” can be approved.
Between now and the end of his sentence in early July, Ryan cannot visit others in their homes, and if he goes to a public place, he has to bring a receipt or other written proof of where he was, Thompson said.
“It’s like being in the halfway house,” Thompson said.
Ryan is home for the first time since wife Lura Lynn died, and his oldest grandson will be staying with him, Thompson said.
“I imagine it’s very hard,” Thompson said. “Just as I imagine it’s been very hard ever since she died and it’s been very hard ever since he left her (for prison). At least he’s got closure now with his family.”
Ryan’s long career in public life came to a stunning crash with his 2006 conviction for fraud, racketeering and other charges for steering millions of dollars in state business to lobbyists and friends in return for vacations, gifts and other benefits to him and his family. He is one of four former Illinois governors convicted of federal crimes over the past four decades.
Once a small-town pharmacist, Ryan played politics as a consummate insider, a proponent of backroom deal-making and influence peddling as an accepted part of the political culture. The Kankakee native rose from speaker of the Illinois House to win statewide election as lieutenant governor, secretary of state and one term as governor.
As governor, he wanted to be known as a deal-maker and builder, the father of a multibillion-dollar public works program known as Illinois First. Instead he spent the entirety of his single term on the defensive, fending off a spreading federal probe known as Operation Safe Road.
Despite his legal problems, Ryan became a hero to some for abandoning Republican orthodoxy and taking a stand as governor against Illinois’ death penalty, ultimately declaring a moratorium on executions and commuting the sentences of all death row inmates in the final days of his term. Death penalty advocates still trumpet him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The long day Wednesday started in a rainstorm in Terre Haute when Ryan left prison at about 1 a.m. and was driven to Thompson’s Chicago home, where he arrived around 4:30 a.m. in sweats and changed into a gray sports coat, white shirt and maroon tie.
A little over two hours later, Ryan, looking thinner but healthy, arrived at the halfway house at Ashland Avenue and Monroe Street. He was surrounded by TV cameras — and reporters firing questions — as he walked toward the four-story red brick building in the pre-dawn darkness.
Accompanied by his son, George Ryan Jr., and Thompson, Ryan smiled tightly but refused to answer questions from reporters.
“Guys, he can’t talk,” Thompson barked. “Bureau of Prisons policy. Come on, give him a break!”
Tribune reporters Bob Secter and Peter Nickeas contributed.