Convicted of drug smuggling, Kemi and Tasha Ryan thought leaving prison was the end of their sentence. It was more like the start. Now they are taking their anti-crime message into schools
Photo: Kemi (left) and Tasha Ryan set up Re-formed, to encourage young people to steer clear of crime. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
By: Joanna Moorhead
“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.”