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Former Gov. George Ryan is halfway home

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 9:45 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — He once ran the state of Illinois, but former governor-turned-federal inmate George Ryan will soon be taking classes on how to write a check and what to wear on a job interview as he starts his transition back to the free world weeks from his 79th birthday.

Ryan, nearing the completion of his 61/2-year term for a corruption conviction, is due to move by Wednesday from his prison camp in Terre Haute, Ind., to a federal re-entry center, better known as a halfway house, on Chicago’s West Side, according to several sources close to the family.

The optional but popular move for federal inmates comes about six months before their release date and is designed to ensure that they have a job, a stable living environment and good life skills as they transition to life outside prison. While that might not seem necessary for a former governor, the Bureau of Prisons is a one-size-fits-all kind of agency that treats all inmates the same.

Prison officials would not comment on or confirm Ryan’s expected release this week. Chris Burke, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman in Washington, said families are allowed to transport inmates from prison to the halfway house.

If Ryan does well at the halfway house, he would be eligible to move to home confinement at his Kankakee residence to finish out his sentence, which ends July 4.

The former governor was convicted in 2006 of 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 Ryan and his family. The jury verdict culminated the federal Operation Safe Road probe that exposed rampant bribery in state driver’s license facilities while he was secretary of state as well as misdeeds as governor.

The halfway house, operated by the Salvation Army a few blocks east of the United Center, has been a way station for about 20,000 men and women since opening in 1975. Many corrupt Illinois politicians have finished their sentences at the facility. Among the most recent graduates was former Chicago Alderman Edward Vrdolyak.

From the outside, the boxy, four-story red brick building at Ashland Avenue and Monroe Street appears to be another of the city’s ubiquitous single-room occupancy hotels, with air conditioning units poking out of the windows but little signage. It was built in the 1920s; old-time mobsters were said to have held meetings in the steam room.

Today, on the east-facing wall, a large sign reads, “FREEDOM CENTER, A SALVATION ARMY COMMUNITY SERVICE.” Underneath it are the words, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

“It’s really a dive,” said Scott Fawell, a former top adviser to Ryan who spent three weeks in the facility in 2008 after his release from prison for his conviction on racketeering and fraud. “It’s not very big. And you’re in with all convicts from all facilities.”

Once Ryan arrives, he probably will be assigned to a small dormitory-style room with a desk and a closet, said Fawell, who was the government’s key witness at Ryan’s marathon trial. Residents share community bathrooms and showers, he said, and the cafeteria serves food three times a day.

Fawell and others who have spent time there said the halfway house staff tightly controls movement by residents inside the facility. But residents eventually earn the privilege to leave the facility during the day for approved activities, including work, job training or religious services. Weekend releases also are permitted.

Life at the halfway house also restored smaller pleasures that had been denied for so long, said Fawell, who was sentenced to 61/2 years in prison. A television in your own room. Snacks and outside food — even homemade if someone brings it by, he said.

“You are happier than you should be,” he said. “You haven’t won (release yet). But it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m wearing jeans. I’ve got my wallet. There’s cash in it.’ … Little things. That is a sign things are winding down.”

Ryan will be assigned a “resident adviser,” according to the Salvation Army’s website. A needs assessment will be done to set up goals and an expected timetable to meet those, the website said.

All residents are expected to find a job within three weeks — and classes are offered to help. Resumes, online job searches, interview skills and appropriate interview dress are listed on the website as topics of discussion.

The trick to moving out of the halfway house, Fawell said, is securing a job. He arrived with paperwork showing that he had a consulting job lined up, and he suspects Ryan, who once oversaw thousands of Illinois jobs, will do the same.

“He won’t be there that long,” Fawell predicted. “He will be there maybe three or four weeks. As long as you have a job and a place to live. A lot of people will put him on the payroll.”

But the wait can be much longer. Former Alderman Wallace Davis spent six months in the halfway house after his conviction in 1988 for accepting bribes and kickbacks from a relative and constituents in his West Side 27th Ward. He was sentenced to 81/2 years in prison and was released from prison in 1992.

“That place is around the corner from my old ward office,” Davis, now 61, said of the halfway house. “I could practically see it from my room.”

In an interview last week at his restaurant, Wallace’s Catfish Corner in East Garfield Park, Davis said the building doesn’t appear to have changed since he was there two decades ago.

Davis said the halfway house represented a culture shock for him after spending more than three years at the high-security federal prison in Milan, Mich., which has been home to many convicted Chicago-area mobsters, drug dealers and bank robbers over the years. He said Ryan, who served his sentence in a low-security prison camp, might actually find the halfway house to be more constrictive in many ways.

“It might be more like a prison for George now than it was when he was in the camp,” Davis said. “There’s no movement after certain hours, where in the camp you can move around. At least in the beginning, it might feel like he’s on lockdown.”

Davis said Ryan will have to undergo random drug screenings and check in regularly with his probation officer. And as Fawell said, as long as the former governor has a job lined up, his conditions could improve rapidly. Restrictions will likely be lifted quickly after an initial probationary period, Davis said.

“He’ll have three weeks where he’ll have to walk a tightrope,” Davis said. “Then you get your weekend pass, other privileges. He’s going to enjoy that. That’s where you start to really unwind.”

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