Life after prison: the sisters who hope to make a difference - written by Joanna Moorhead - The Guardian
"Sisters of evil" shrieked one newspaper headline, when Kemi and Tasha Ryan were sent to prison nine years ago. "It was tough for our mum to see that," says Kemi, 30. "She thought we were working hard, doing well, putting the values she'd taught us into action. She couldn't believe how things turned out – none of our family could believe it. They never imagined they'd be coming to visit us in jail."
Sitting in a Liverpool cafe with the Ryan sisters on a sunny afternoon, it is hard to believe they are former criminals. Both are friendly, fun and courteous, and brimming with enthusiasm for the work they do with young people. "It's really taking off, and we're incredibly proud of it," says Tasha.
They were raised here, says Kemi, in "the better end" of Toxteth. Their father, originally from Africa, died when they were young. Then their mother, who is from the Caribbean, married a Jamaican and the couple ran a West Indian takeaway. The girls had four younger brothers. "Mum always instilled in us the importance of honest hard work," says Tasha.
After school, Tasha became a nursery nurse and Kemi studied to go into psychiatric nursing. Both did well: when they could afford their own flat, they moved in together. "We were independent for the first time in our lives," says Tasha. "But the problem was, we were greedy. We wanted more."
The chance of more came when some men they knew asked them to act as drug mules. "It sounded easy," says Tasha. "A holiday in the Caribbean, then we'd bring some stuff back and hand it over when we were through customs."
But what the sisters didn't know was that the smuggler who recruited them was part of a global network and police were already closing in. As the Ryans handed over their bag of cocaine, which police said had a street value of £200,000, undercover officers swooped. The sisters pleaded guilty to conspiring to import class-A drugs and were sentenced to eight years in prison. "We were naive youngsters who got caught up in something much bigger than we realised," says Kemi. "I'm not excusing it, but that was the truth."
Prison, she says, could easily have been the end of them. "It's very difficult to describe what it's like being inside … certainly it's like nothing you've ever known before," says Kemi. "An awful lot of terrible things are going on. You can't imagine how you're going to survive and looking around, you realise that most inmates are only getting through it with the help of prescription drugs, which really do your head in."
What saved them, say the Ryans, was that they were held together and even shared a cell at times – co-defendants are usually separated in prison – "That was the key to being able to come out sane the other end because it basically meant we had something few prisoners ever have," says Tasha. "We had someone we could really trust – each other."
They also came up with a survival strategy. "We realised the best way through was to concentrate on just the day in hand, in getting through it, and in helping any other prisoner we could along the way," says Kemi.
The sisters were released in April 2007. "The day we got out seemed so wonderful," remembers Kemi. By then in their early 20s, they were about to discover what they now believe is the cruellest blow of all for those who get caught up in criminality. "We thought it was the end of our sentence," says Tasha. "In fact, it was more like the beginning."
Keen to show they were reformed characters, the sisters – who had changed their surname from Osagie to Ryan in an attempt to distance themselves from their crime, though they still had to declare their conviction to potential employers – started to apply for jobs. "We didn't think it would be easy to find work, but we definitely thought it would be possible," says Kemi. "We were grafters, and we were still young and ambitious."
They wanted to get into youth work: but employer after employer turned them down. "And then we started to realise that no one was ever going to trust us again – no one was ever going to give us a job," says Tasha.
The sisters were hit by a new truth: surviving the aftermath, not the incarceration, was going to be the hardest task of all. "We promised one another support, because we knew we couldn't do it on our own. What really helped was that, just as in prison, we had someone else who really understood. Coming out of prison into a world that doesn't want you is a very lonely business: we were fortunate in having someone to share it all with."
But rejection still stung, and much more painfully than they had thought. "We'd worked hard to stay off drugs and to keep ourselves sane in prison, and we were committed to getting back on track now we were out – but every door had closed," says Tasha. "And then we realised that the only thing we could do was the thing we'd been doing for the last few years: look to one another."
It dawned on them that there was one job they were uniquely qualified to do: warn other young people about the realities of turning to crime. "We knew if we wanted to do that work, we'd have to set up our own organisation," says Kemi. "Because no one was going to let us become a part of theirs."
So, in 2011, the sisters started Re-formed and began to run workshops for schools and youth groups that draw on their own experience and aim to make youngsters aware of how far-reaching the consequences of criminality can be.
"We ask them, what's the worst thing that can happen when you're convicted of a crime?" says Kemi. "And when they say prison, we say no. We tell them, prison is just the start; your real sentence starts when you get out, because that's when you realise that society doesn't want you any more. The best way to avoid it is not to go down the path we went down. Just say no. Don't offend."
But Re-formed isn't letting employers off the hook: the sisters are also challenging them to believe that ex-cons can and do turn a corner, and that they can only do that if they are given a second chance. "Too many employers see someone has a criminal record, and they don't see anything else," says Kemi. "We know it's a big ask, but we want them to think about how it feels to want to go straight, but find no doors are open. And what can ex-offenders do if they can't get work and feel they don't have any stake in the future? Is it any wonder reoffending rates are so high?"
More than 400 young people have attended the workshops and they are making tentative links with employers willing to look again at taking on ex-offenders. Best of all, they say, their mother is truly proud of them. "When she talks to her friends about us, she's finally got something positive to say," says Tasha. "For a long time, she was the mum with two daughters in prison. Now she's the mum with two daughters who are trying to make a difference."
"Re-hab doesn't do what it says on the tin" - written by Eric Ellison - The Guardian
The road to rehabilitation is not an easy one to tread. It is littered with obstacles – some, seemingly laid by a criminal justice system bent on setting up offenders to fail. And we know that society at large does not roll out the welcome mat for those returning from prison. But what about those organisations set up to support offenders trying to go straight? Surely they do what it says on their tins?
Not so, according to two sisters I recently had the pleasure of meeting. In 2003, they were sentenced to eight years in jail, for conspiring to import and supply cocaine. It was their first offence, they were aged 19 and 18, and came from a respectable family. They were not drug users. They openly admit that their crime was motivated by greed, but say in mitigation that they were seduced by the apparent lifestyle of the "successful" role models of their area – the drug dealers.
The sisters spent the first two years of their sentence in London's Holloway prison and witnessed scenes that aged them far beyond their years: women "cutting up" on a daily basis; women having their babies taken from them; a friend who hanged herself and was brain dead for months before her life-support machine was switched off; and, of course, the drug-taking and bullying.
Shocked and appalled by what they saw, they vowed to work towards preventing other young people from treading their path – "to show people the real consequences of crime".
They gained qualifications in English, maths and business studies. And after their release in 2007, they embarked on their mission with high hopes. Over the next 18 months, they worked with three organisations, all either funded by the government or involved with government agencies. And the sisters say the experience did little for their own rehabilitation. Their work, with vulnerable women and children and discharged prisoners, was unpaid, but they were promised places on the payroll, only to see staff with no criminal records constantly jumping over them in the promotion queue. Worse still, they say they were made to feel "different" from the "clean" staff. They say the organisations treated them as token ex-offenders, ticking the right boxes.
The sisters' experience is not unique. Several ex-offenders who have come into contact with rehabilitation agencies say condescension often hangs in the air at such meetings. Some say they feel they are "trundled out" as tame ex-cons.
Fortunately, this story promises a happy ending. The sisters are now involved with the Reclaim Project at Urbis exhibition centre in Manchester, which reaches out to young people through an intensive mentoring programme.
Ruth Ibegbuna, who leads the project, cannot speak highly enough of the sisters, describing them as "inspirational mentors" who are adored by the young people they come into contact with. Reclaim is not in a position to offer the sisters paid work, but Ibegbuna says it is only a matter of time before they get the opportunity their talent deserves. The sisters return the compliment, saying they feel part of the team at Reclaim, and that the experience is a "breath of fresh air" after their earlier, negative involvement.
The question of leopards and spots stems from a biblical quote that goes on to note "then may ye also do good that are accustomed to evil". I am not a God-botherer and have no truck with the concept of evil. But I know good when I see it. And I see it here. Pity others didn't.
Eric Allison writes on criminal justice.
Britains Forgotten Female Prisoners - written by Sophie Ghost
In the last decade the number of women in prison has more than doubled to 4267 in England and Wales. We jail more women than any other country in Western Europe and the risk of reoffending for women is four times higher than for men. Is imprisonment re- ally the best way to deal with female offenders and are the government’s penal and justice policies having a disproportionate effect on women?
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