CHICAGO – Former Gov. George Ryan was released from prison before dawn Wednesday, stopping only briefly at a halfway house before he was allowed to travel home to serve the rest of his sentence for corruption.
By midday, the 78-year-old was sitting in the living room of his spacious home in a leafy northern Illinois neighborhood in Kankakee, beaming and surrounded by his children and grandchildren, said Ryan's attorney and also a former governor, Jim Thompson.
"If you could see his and his grandkids' smiling faces," said Thompson, speaking by phone from Ryan's house. "He is surrounded by happy faces."
Amid an already emotion-packed day for Ryan, a grandchild handed him an urn shortly after his arrival at home that held the ashes of his wife, Lura Lynn, who died in 2011, Thompson said. He and his wife had raised their children in the same house.
Ryan's discharge to home confinement just hours after arriving at the halfway house seemed to surprise even Thompson, who insisted Ryan got no special treatment. He said officials simply determined he didn't need the services halfway homes provide such as assistance in writing checks and interviewing for jobs.
"The bureau of prisons is tough," Thompson said. "They don't play favorites." He noted that prison officials refused to bend the rules, for instance, when Ryan asked to attend his wife's funeral; the request was denied.
Ryan, a Republican, served five-plus years behind bars for multiple corruption convictions, walking out of his federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. at around 1 a.m. Wednesday – his son driving him the 200 miles north to Chicago.
His first stop after getting to the Chicago area was at Thompson's house, where the two had coffee and Ryan changed from sweat pants into a business suit and put on the first tie he'd worn in years, Thompson said.
Later, looking relaxed and thinner than before prison, he walked past throngs of reporters into a Chicago halfway house just before 7 a.m. on Wednesday. Ryan smiled faintly but didn't speak to reporters.
Ryan was mostly quiet during the long drive from Indiana to Chicago, making a detour to Michigan Avenue to take in the Christmas lights still up along the city's iconic shopping street, Thompson said.
"It is such a stark change from penitentiary life," Thompson said outside the halfway house before traveling on to Kankakee. "He has to become accustomed again to being on the outside."
Ryan's status as an ex-governor didn't win him special consideration in the decision to let him skip the halfway house and go home, Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke said later Wednesday.
"It's not unheard of," he said.
Elderly inmates, those in poor health or those who have families willing to take care of them can win exemptions from mandates to spend at least several days at a halfway house, Burke said. He wasn't permitted to speak specifically about the factors in Ryan's case.
Ryan has suffered from his own health problems, including kidney disease, but displayed no outward signs of ill-health Wednesday.
Thompson said a final decision to let Ryan head home was made by prison officials only Wednesday morning, but he said he hadn't made the request and he wasn't aware that Ryan had. He said the facility apparently concluded a limit number of beds would be better offered to someone other than Ryan.
Ryan will be under home confinement until his sentence officially ends July 4, meaning he will only be allowed to leave on rare occasion, including for doctor's appointments or to go to church, and only with prior permission, Burke said.
Ryan will still be subject to strict rules, including prohibitions against speaking to the media. Thompson added that Ryan, who worked in a carpentry shop in prison, was granted retirement status by authorities, so he won't be required to find a job.
Ryan 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.
Some activists working to abolish the death penalty have suggested Ryan could speak nationwide on the issue.
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 was sentenced to 6½ years on Nov. 7, 2007. He compiled credit for good conduct, knocking 305 days off his sentence, Burke said.
Current Gov. Pat Quinn commented on Ryan's release at a news conference Wednesday, citing the deaths of six children of the Willis family in an accident involving a trucker who apparently bought his license when Ryan was secretary of state. The fatal crash helped spark the Ryan investigation.
"It's a very, very sad chapter in Illinois," Quinn said. "Justice had to be served. ... Mr. Ryan served his time and we're moving forward."
Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm