CHICAGO — Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was released from a federal prison before dawn Wednesday after serving more than five years for corruption. Looking relaxed and thinner than before prison, he walked past throngs of reporters into a Chicago halfway house.
Ryan, 78, left the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. five months before his prison term officially ended, having qualified for early release to the Salvation Army-run Freedom Center.
Wearing a gray business suit and tie, Ryan smiled faintly but didn't speak to reporters as he walked into the red-bricked facility on the city's West Side just before 7 a.m.
"Today is another step in a long journey for George Ryan," his attorney and former Gov. Jim Thompson told reporters after Ryan went inside.
Ryan was mostly quiet during the 200-mile drive from Indiana to Chicago, said Thompson, who accompanied him on the journey. They made a detour to Michigan Avenue to take in the Christmas lights still up along the city's iconic shopping street, he said.
"He's in decent spirits. It is such a stark change from penitentiary life," Thompson said. "He has to become accustomed again to being on the outside."
Ryan was sentenced to 6 ½ years on Nov. 7, 2007, and his term officially ends July 4 after compiling 305 days credit for good conduct, said Bureau of Prison's spokesman Chris Burke.
New residents are usually required to look for a job, and Thompson said Ryan doesn't yet have anything lined up. Ryan ordered a stop to executions in Illinois when he was governor and some activists working to abolish the death penalty have suggested Ryan could speak nationwide on the issue.
Ryan, a Republican, drew nationwide attention in 2003 when he deemed Illinois' capital punishment laws flawed and emptied death row. That reignited a nationwide debate and led the state to abolish its death penalty in 2011.
His release means Illinois no longer has the dubious distinction of having two former governors behind bars simultaneously. Ryan's successor, Rod Blagojevich, is now Illinois' lone imprisoned governor. The Democrat is serving a 14-year term for corruption at a federal prison in Colorado.
A jury convicted Ryan in 2006 of racketeering, conspiracy, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI. Jurors found that Ryan had steered state business to insiders as secretary of state and then as governor for vacations and gifts. He also was accused of stopping an investigation into secretary of state employees accepting bribes for truck driver's licenses.
Ryan's wife of 55 years died in 2011. Officials allowed him to leave prison to visit her when she was sick with cancer, but he wasn't allowed to attend her funeral. Ryan has suffered from his own health problems, including kidney disease.
For decades, the Salvation Army has run a community program where inmates live for a short time, take classes to learn basic skills and receive counseling, among other things.
Former Ryan aide Scott Fawell, also convicted in the corruption investigation, spent time at the West Loop halfway house, which is just a couple of blocks from the United Center where the Chicago Bulls play. Last week, he described it as being "like a really bad dorm room." But he said "life is a little better" there than in prison.
Inmates at a halfway house get to wear their own clothes, work a job and can be eligible to be in their own homes within weeks, though they still have to keep close contact with prison officials.
Ryan owns a home in Kankakee, about 60 miles south of Chicago.