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Ryan's new digs definitely not 'Club Fed'
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 11/6/2007 1:25 AM | Updated: 11/6/2007 7:28 AM

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If he's lucky, George Ryan will get an uneventful strip search, a pair of comfy khakis, a bottom bunk in a room devoid of snorers, and a job that gives him the potential to earn the maximum salary of 40 cents an hour.

Even then, life inside the federal prison camp in Oxford, Wis., won't be easy for the former governor.

"The hardest part is being separated from your family," says David Corcoran, a retired chaplain from Des Plaines whose protests against torture and war have earned him two six-month stints in that federal prison in the past six years. Barring Supreme Court intervention, Ryan will be checking into the minimum-security prison camp Wednesday.

With no cell phones or e-mails allowed, Corcoran had to make the best use of his maximum 300 minutes of public phone time a month. Wanting to squeeze every second out of the calls, Corcoran and his wife, Barbara, ignored the automatic shutoff time of 15 minutes.

"My wife and I just decided to keep talking until we were cut off," Corcoran says.

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His wife also made the four-hour trip every other weekend for visits in a guarded room. Hugs and kisses from loved ones on an approved list are allowed briefly during arrival and departure.

While the stereotype of a "Club Fed" country club existence with inmates golfing away their days is wrong, so is the idea that prisoners risk assault whenever they venture into the shower, Corcoran says.

"You get a lot of people who are discontented, but nobody is violent," Corcoran says of his time there. "You don't have to worry about anybody attacking you sexually or violently."

There are no computers, cable TV or Internet service. But there is a library, at least one working typewriter, public-area televisions, a gymnasium, a pool table, a Ping-Pong table and a Foosball game. Viewing of network shows (until lights off at 11:30 p.m.) are decided by majority rule.

"People did get into fights over which program to watch, and that was very quickly caught," Corcoran says. Violators were sent to "the hole," a solitary confinement cell in the adjoining prison.

"I was tempted, just to get a taste of what it was like to be in solitary, but I never did," says Corcoran, who, at 73, is the same age as Ryan, who faces a 6½-year sentence.

"I don't like to be pessimistic for George, but they say it's not a place to go if you have health problems," says Corcoran, who was fit enough to climb into his top bunk each night. "He might not come out."

The prison in Duluth, Minn., where Ryan was scheduled to go until he was reassigned to the much-closer facility in Oxford, cracked a Forbes' list of "The 12 best places to go to prison." Inmates at the Minnesota prison have been known to get care at the Mayo Clinic.

According to The John Marshall Law School's copy of the "Federal Prison Guidebook" (think of it as a Fodor's for people who won't be going places), the Oxford facility has two doctors, two dentists, a pharmacist and other health staff. But just because a private doctor prescribed a medication doesn't mean the hospital doctor will agree, Corcoran says.

The prison camp, which is next to a medium-security institution, has no fences or bars. Four wings of 13 four-person rooms feed into two common areas with rec rooms and public bathrooms. Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the grounds.

Sleeping rooms fit two bunk beds, a small desk and a place to store hygiene items. Inmates are given work clothes and can buy sweatpants, tennis shoes, T-shirts and sweatshirts at the commissary. They aren't allowed to bring clothing, money or other personal items from home.

"The only thing I could bring in was my wedding ring," Corcoran says.

"There are no fences or bars, or anything like that, but you can't sit around and do nothing," Corcoran adds. He had a job cleaning the kitchen. Some clean bathrooms. Others handle landscaping. Inmates prepare all the meals.

"They have some classes, but they are all put on by the inmates," Corcoran says. "The guys will come up with a home-improvement class or Spanish. We even had a class in Arabic."

The beds feature a mattress sitting on a support wire, and aren't known for comfort.

"Some mattresses are half as thick as others, so there's always competition to get a good mattress," Corcoran says. He once had a roommate who got so angry about their third roommate's snoring that the two refused to talk to each other.

"The thing I found really disconcerting, they check you six times a day to see if you are there," Corcoran says, recalling waking in the middle of the night when the beam from a guard's flashlight would hit his face. A missing inmate means everyone must get up and be counted.

"Everything was locked down during 9/11," Corcoran says of the 2001 attack that happened during his first stay at Oxford. "They were afraid the terrorists were coming."

The prison food "was sufficient for me, but people would complain about it," said Corcoran, who became a vegetarian in prison. "I always thought they had a pretty good salad bar."

Some guards did a lot of yelling and name-calling. Others treated inmates well, Corcoran says.

"Staying busy, that's the key," the former Catholic priest says. "The time goes much, much faster if you keep busy."

As for the inmates -- many of them professionals with drug convictions -- Corcoran says he got along.

"In general, no matter who comes in there, it becomes a family right away. The guys really welcome you," Corcoran says. "There were really some good guys in there. I made some good friendships."