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Ex-Gov. Ryan leaves prison, enters Chicago halfway house

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan arrives halfway house Chicago Wednesday Jan. 30 2013 after serving five-plus years federal priscorrupticharges. The

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan arrives at a halfway house in Chicago Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, after serving five-plus years in federal prison on corruption charges. The 78-year-old Ryan began serving his 6 1/2-year sentence in November 2007 in Oxford, Wis., and was released from another prison in Terra Haute, Ind., to enter the halfway house under a work-release program. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Updated: March 2, 2013 7:34AM

Showing no emotion, former Gov. George Ryan arrived at a Chicago halfway house under dark, dreary skies about 6:50 a.m. Wednesday.

Ryan quietly walked from a van that transported him from a prison in Terre Haute, Ind., across the parking lot and into the West Side facility.

Surrounded by reporters, Ryan — wearing a gray blazer, burgundy tie and dark pants — walked across a parking lot just north of the halfway house without uttering a word.

“Today is another step in a long journey for George Ryan,” former Gov. James Thompson told reporters shortly after Ryan checked into the halfway house.

“He would like me to tell you he is grateful to leave the penitentiary, he’s grateful also for the support and encouragement he’s received from many people by way of visits or phone calls or cards or letters,” Thompson said. “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.”

Ryan left the prison camp about 1 a.m. Wednesday, accompanied by his son Homer and Thompson.

“He tied his own tie this morning,” Thompson said. “He hadn’t forgotten how to do that.”

Thompson, one of Ryan’s lawyers, said Ryan is in “decent spirits” but didn’t say much on his ride up to Chicago.

“We came down Michigan Avenue and he was looking at the lights left over from Christmas,” Thompson said. “That was sort of wonderful, I think. He hasn’t seen the city of Chicago in 5-1/2 years.”

Asked if Ryan was sorry for the licenses-for-bribes scandal that revolutionized state law, Thompson said they haven’t talked about it. He said Ryan doesn’t yet have a job lined up as required by his release.

Ryan’s family and close friends made clear on Tuesday that an effort was afoot to avoid memorializing his departure from prison, where by midday, a horde of media already were staged.

Ryan, a 78-year-old father and grandfather, re-enters his life outside of prison, facing the grim reality that his lifelong love, Lura Lynn, is gone.

She died in 2011 of lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. His family said it would hold off having a formal memorial for her until George Ryan was freed from prison.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s halfway house release begins a new era for the Kankakee native. He’s expected to stay for a maximum of six months at the same Salvation Army where dozens of onetime politicos from Illinois made their transition back to freedom. They included former City Clerk James Laski and Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese.

Loren-Maltese didn’t sugarcoat her stay at the same venue.

“I was cleaning the bathrooms,” she said. “I thought it was horrible there — it reminded me of the high-security prison because of being locked in all the time.”

Laski, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to taking $48,000 in bribes, has few good memories of the place — an environment he called “dingy, cold and dark.”

“It’s not the most friendly place,” Laski told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.

Laski, who went to the South Ashland facility in mid-2007 from a dormitory-type prison in West Virginia, described the buffet-style food as “fair to middling,” but a slight improvement over prison grub.

Laski recalled his first day at the halfway house, when he was required to introduce himself to various staff members and gather a signature from each of them.

“You run around like a little kid, getting signatures. . . . It’s silly,” said Laski, who lives on the Southwest Side and runs a consulting business with offices in Chicago and Miami.

The West Side facility, which opened in 1975, has helped more than 20,000 men and women transition back into the community, according to the Salvation Army, which runs the facility. The program “offers a safe, secure and structured environment in which offenders are given positive motivation to make effective changes in their lives,” according to a description on the Salvation Army’s website. Depending on the need, some residents enroll in treatment for substance abuse, GED programs, “life skills” classes, among others.

For people who have no family or support and little education, a halfway house might serve a useful purpose, but not for someone like Ryan who has many friends and connections, Laski said.

“It’s really a waste of taxpayer money for certain people to be there,” Laski said.

But Melanie Scofield, a Salvation Army spokeswoman, said the halfway house programs are generally not “one size fits all.”

“A plan is developed for their stay, and those plans vary from person to person — depending on their needs and ability,” Scofield said.

While Ryan was allowed several visits with his wife while he was a federal prisoner, including when she was on her deathbed, he lost legal bids and appeals to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a release or temporary transfer.

In denying his release, judges noted that thousands of other prisoners face similar tragic life circumstances, often in more economically dire situations.

Up until the end, she made multiple pleas to lawyers, judges and even two presidents to commute her husband’s sentence. She gained traction just briefly, when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, citing a long friendship to Lura Lynn, held a news conference announcing he would urge then-President George Bush to commute Ryan’s sentence.

Not long after, however, then-sitting Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on completely separate corruption charges and any momentum behind Ryan’s early release quickly faded.

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