Ex-Gov. Ryan's halfway house: 'Not a five-star Hilton'

Former elected officials talk about adjusting to life after prison with the help of family and gummy bears.

January 29, 2013

Ex-Illinois Gov. George Ryan reported to a Chicago halfway house Wednesday.

Ryan has been serving a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for corruption. WBEZ caught up with some other Illinois politicians who spent time at the same halfway house — to learn about adjusting to life on the outside.

These days, there’s only one security guard that Jim Laski has to worry about: a little white lhasa apso named Teddy that doesn’t seem to like reporters.

Laski is Chicago’s former City Clerk who spent a year in prison for taking bribes as part of the Hired Truck scandal. When I met him at his house on the Southwest Side yesterday, he answered the door in a sweatshirt, with slicked back hair.

He now lives here with his family and two little dogs. But when Laski first got out, he spent about six months at the Salvation Army Freedom Center on the Near West Side, the same halfway house George Ryan will soon call home.

“The Salvation Army is not a five-star Hilton,” Laski said.

The fall from grace can be a long one for a politician at the top of his game. It’s unclear exactly what Ryan’s life will look like at the halfway house, and the Salvation Army wouldn’t give WBEZ a tour.

Many residents receive job training and are required to find employment, according to a Salvation Army spokeswoman. But Ryan’s time may be different, given that he is 78-years-old.

Whatever his job situation, convicted politicians like Laski say the former governor can expect a single bed, a desk, a window - and no special treatment.

“It’s almost like being a monk in a monastery,” Laski said. “It’s a very stoic, uh, sterile, spartan, like, room.”

The first week, Laski says he was given a house job as the bathroom cleaner. And then he had to find a real job - in his case, answering phones at an auto garage. He was allowed to leave the halfway house for work, and go home on the weekends.

But Laski was on a short leash: there were regular check-ins, calls in the middle of the night to confirm he was actually in bed, and random drug tests - like the one he got on Thanksgiving.

“It’s a very dehumanizing situation, too,” Laski said. “On Thanksgiving, to get called during dinner, to go down to the halfway house, and your wife goes with you, ‘cause she doesn’t want you to go by yourself, and you stand there in front of somebody, peeing into a cup, to make sure you’re not on drugs.”

Laski doesn’t try to hide his bitterness about the halfway house experience. But for another politician-turned-convict, life on the outside started out a bit sweeter.

“Of course, I had loved gummy bears at the time, and hadn’t had cigarettes in quite a while,” said Betty Loren-Maltese, the former Cicero Town president who spent six-and-a-half years in prison for her part in an insurance scheme.

The first thing she did when she got out?

“I had gummy bears, water and smoked,” she said, adding that it made her sick at first.

Loren-Maltese still has her trademark big hair and plenty of eye makeup. But gone are the over-sized glasses. She now rents a condo with her teenaged daughter in Glen Ellyn, where Loren-Maltese works part-time, from home, with television talk shows blaring in the background.

But when she first came back to the Chicago area, she says she stayed at the Salvation Army halfway house because she had nowhere else to go.

Loren-Maltese says the hardest part was trying to explain all of this to her young daughter.

“I would get to talk with her once in a while, and she would say, ‘Well, mom, can’t I come and live with you at the halfway house?’ And I would say, ‘Well no, Ashleigh.’ She said she could sleep under the bed, and you know, she just - ... the worst part of it was how it affected my daughter.”

Loren-Maltese says the feds took most of her possessions to pay her legal penalties - everything from her second house in Las Vegas to the paintings that hung on her walls. So now, instead of making frequent trips to casinos, she says she’s become the kind of person who checks the price of everything at the supermarket.

“Well it was difficult to lose everything you’ve worked for, especially when you know you’re not guilty, and you lose everything,” she said.

Loren-Maltese is still determined to clear her name. As we sit at her kitchen table, she shows me her new blog.

Loren-Maltese writes about her case, she chronicles her misadventures in online dating - and she’ll even do restaurant reviews, if there’s a free meal involved. (A recent outing to a Buffalo Wild Wings, for example, yielded good service but bad coffee, Loren-Maltese said.)

But after years in prison and months in halfway houses, bad coffee is a pretty good problem to have.
Loren-Maltese says, for now, George Ryan may have bigger things to worry about.

“I mean, they’re strict. If he thinks it’s gonna be easy. ... It isn’t,” she said.

But curfews and drug tests aside, the emotional re-entry into society could be even tougher, says Jim Laski, the former City Clerk.

“Things were going well. I mean, I was gonna run for state office, people said I could even run for mayor one day. I mean, yeah, I was at the top of my game, and then all came crashing down,” Laski said.

Nowadays, Laski says he spends a lot more time walking around his neighborhood, noticing the little things - people out shopping, or a passing school bus. The kind of stuff he couldn’t see from behind bars.

“I can define this in one word, from the time I got indicted, to the time I came home and everything, and that’s ‘humility,’” Laski said. “You learn a lot about humility. It’s a very humbling experience.”