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‘I really feel sorry for George’ — Former gov says even minimum security prison is ‘brutal’

NOTE: This article was originally published April 23, 2006

He was searched by guards who ordered him to “strip, squat and spread.” He was threatened by fellow inmates when he balked that they were bucking the breakfast line.

His job was scrubbing toilets, but twice a day he had to pick up cigarette butts with a nail on a wooden rod marked “Governor’s Stick.”

So don’t tell former Illinois Gov. Dan Walker that minimum security prison is a picnic or a Club Fed. He calls it “brutal” — so brutal that he contemplated suicide while inside.

“It’s what it does to you personally,” Walker said. “It’s not like ‘hard time,’ as they call it. But is it as searing? Yes, yes. For someone like me, yes. Certainly it is searing.”

The only living former Illinois governor who has gone to prison,Walker said memories of his own downfall came flooding back this past week when former Gov. George Ryan was convicted of 18 counts of corruption.

A former north suburban lawyer, Walker, 83, shared his memories with the Chicago Sun-Times in a telephone interview from his home in a suburb of San Diego.

‘A BODY BLOW’

Unlike Ryan, Walker was convicted for crimes unrelated to his government office. Walker prides himself on instituting reforms as governor, including banning employees under his control from doing political work, so he hailed the verdict in the Ryan case.

“I am glad that the message is going out loud and clear,” Walker said. “A blow has been delivered against pay-to-play politics in Illinois.”

But the maverick Democrat insisted he wishes no ill on the former Republican governor.

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“Having been there — I repeat, having been there — I do not wish jail for any person,” Walker said. “I really feel sorry for George and his family. . . . I wish no man to have that and no man to have that disgrace that I had.”

Walker burst onto the political scene in the 1970s, winning election as governor in 1972 after walking the state in a blue work shirt, khakis, hiking boots and a red bandana.

He had presidential ambitions, but his combative nature cost him renomination in the 1976 gubernatorial primary.

His real downfall came in 1987, when he pleaded guilty to bank fraud, perjury and other federal crimes involving an Oak Brook savings and loan he owned. He expected to get probation, but U.S. District Judge Ann Williams sentenced him to seven years in prison.

“He still has that one ahead of him — the sentencing,” Walker said of Ryan. “It’s one thing to deal with in the abstract. It’s another to look at the judge as that judge said to me, ‘Seven years, Mr. Walker, seven years.’

“Staring seven years in the face when you’re my age particularly was, what should I say, a body blow.”

Walker was sent to the minimum security prison in Duluth, Minn. It had no bars or locked cells, but a fence surrounded it. The 94-acre former military base had tennis courts, a softball diamond and other recreational facilities, but Walker remembers its isolation and arctic weather.

Clad in military-style fatigues, the inmates regularly had to wait outside for meals, Walker said. Once a couple of prisoners cut ahead of him.

“How about going to the end of the line,” Walker said he told them.

“The rest of us are freezing our b – – – – off.”

One of the inmates turned to Walker and said ” ‘Look, governor, shut up. One more word out of you — as a matter of fact, we’ve already heard too many words — and you’re going to get it. We’ll find you, and we’ll take care of you.’ ”

Walker said an inmate he had befriended told the men that he had mob friends on the outside, warning “‘you put a finger on the governor, and when you get out, I don’t care when it is or where it is, they’re going to get you.’”

‘STRIP, SQUAT AND SPREAD’

About four months into Walker’s sentence, the warden spotted a ring on the former governor’s finger and ordered him to take it off. It was his class ring from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Walker refused, telling the warden, ” ‘I’ve never had this ring off since I graduated, and I intend to have it on when I die.’ ”

Two guards pushed him to the ground and soaped up his finger to get it off.

“Humiliating? Sure,” Walker said.

Even more demeaning, he said, were the searches,conducted on a random basis and every time an inmate left the visitors area.

“The phrase the guards used was ‘Strip, squat and spread,’ which meant that you took off your clothes, and they searched all body cavities — and I do mean all cavities,” Walker said. “Very humiliating, demeaning.”

THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE

Initially, Walker worked as a clerk in the prison chapel. But the warden switched his job to cleaning toilets — with daily breaks to use the rod with the words “Governor’s Stick” burned into it.

The litter-picking duties were always in front of the warden’s office.

“So the warden could point out and say, ‘Look, that guy was a governor. We treat governors like everybody else,’ ” Walker said.

“It was the middle of winter, you understand, and I was out there snapping up cigarette butts with a stick.”

A few months into his sentence, Walker began contemplating suicide.

In an interview last year, he told the Sun-Times it was “one of those things that kind of builds up as the months went by, and the sheer immensity of it really came home.”

‘I’M FREE!’

Walker resisted through self-discipline he learned in the military and by remembering the words of his father, who had warned about “an insidious disease” he called PLOM — “Poor little old me” . . . feeling sorry for yourself.”

During a break from cleaning toilets in mid-1989, Walker received a call from his lawyer, telling him the judge had reduced his sentence to time served, which amounted to about 17 months.

“So I yelled in a loud voice, ‘I’m free! I’m free! I’m free!’ I went berserk,” Walker said.

He immediately went to the warden’s office and informed him the order was effective immediately.

“I’m walking, warden,” said the man who had trudged 1,197 miles across Illinois. “I’m walking right now.”

Since leaving prison, Walker has worked in a homeless shelter, as a paralegal and in a used bookstore. He has had three historical books published and just finished his memoirs.

‘HOLD YOUR HEAD HIGH’

Writing about his thoughts of suicide was “a tortuous experience,” he said.

Relatives tried to discourage him from writing much about his conviction and prison time, but Walker said nearly every chapter begins with “something that happened in jail and relates it to my life.”

If Ryan does wind up going to prison, Walker said “I hope he doesn’t have it as bad as I did” with “a warden who singled me out and made my life miserable.”

“But still he will go through what I went through, what everyone goes through when they go to prison — the loss of freedom,” Walker said. “The older you are, the more it hits you.

“It will hit him hard, no question about it.”

Walker said he had no real advice for Ryan, saying that “would be very presumptuous.

“Do your best to hold your head high. That’s all I can say.”