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Ex-Gov. Ryan faces changed world after prison

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan is scheduled be released from Terre Haute Ind. prisWednesdayo. | AP Photo

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan is scheduled to be released from a Terre Haute, Ind., prison Wednesdayo. | AP Photo

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Updated: March 31, 2013 2:11AM



CHICAGO — When former Illinois Gov. George Ryan steps out of prison on Wednesday 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 predecessor’s 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 6 ½-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.

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.

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.



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