Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEE 2019-20: Ryan receives a Commendation for his passion and vision, as a Project Manager for the Yorkshire Prisons Safety Team, in developing the #It’sOkayToTalk initiative, to help address emotional isolation among prisoners.
Ryan was nominated for developing and leading the Andy’s Man Club #ItsOkayToTalk initiative, which encourages men to talk openly and supportively with each other, and is designed to address the kind of emotional isolation that can contribute to self-harming and suicidal behaviour.
Initial nominator and Line Manager Kerry Hirst is herself a former Butler Trust winner. In 2016, Ryan approached the director of the Yorkshire Prisons Group, says Kerry, “with passion and a vision to deliver a new initiative, that he had explored within his local community. A journey had begun here, but Ryan recognised the need to create a safe place for men in custody, to talk.”
The #ItsOkayToTalk and #Andy’s Man Club campaigns were originally developed by Luke Ambler, an ex-Irish international and rugby league player for Halifax. Luke’s brother-in-law, Andy Roberts died by suicide in 2016. Andy was just 23. Luke started urging men to share their problems in talking groups, which are now being promoted within local communities, where people can share experiences and support each other.
Ryan set about bringing Andy’s Man Club into the prison estate, a journey that began at HMP Humber, explains Kerry:
“Through hard work, belief and dedication, Ryan worked closely with the staff and governor at HMP Humber to quickly begin and embed this fantastic initiative. Ryan delivered a ‘roadshow’ across the establishment to deliver the #ItsOkayToTalk message. Encouraged by Ryan’s passion and genuine care for people, the response was astounding and a sense of relief was experienced in the room.”
Ryan overcame obstacles along the way, adds Kerry, with “resilience, drive and honesty, delivering the message that, ‘this is the right thing to do.’ Ryan’s enthusiasm captivated those around him, which engaged them in the delivery of #AndysManClub at HMP Humber.”
Independently, the impact of his work was picked up in the prisoner’s group discussion held at Humber by Butler Trust Director Simon Shepherd as part of his Good Book of Prisons project.
Since its launch at Humber in July 2017, says Kerry, “1551 visits have been made by the men in their care. This continues to grow each week, with a recent high of 79 men coming together on a Saturday morning to talk.” Feedback includes remarks like “I can’t believe I am talking about things I don’t usually mention”, “I feel so much better” and “People understand me much more”. Staff have also noted calmer environments. Kerry shares “one particular touching message from a man at HMP Humber”:
“Thank you for sharing the message #ItsOkayToTalk, because I have now contacted my mum, who I have not spoken to for a long time and I have told her how I feel.”
Ryan is now taking steps to bring Andy’s Man Club into a remarkable 23 more prisons, in addition to the violence project work he is leading across the estate. “This challenge does not phase Ryan,” says Kerry, “simply because he cares about people and his empathy for others really stands out.” She goes on:
“Ryan is ‘breaking the stigma’ of men talking, encouraging safe prison communities, and saving lives. He recognises the pressure that the transition from the community to custody can have on a person and he is determined to embed ‘talking’ as the ‘norm.’ Ryan also has a vision to introduce a parallel service, for prison service staff, which he is exploring later this year.”
Butler Trust Local Champion and Business Manager at Yorkshire Prisons Group, Mick Mills, says “Ryan’s passion and commitment is evident in all he achieves” and “his main driver is his commitment to make a difference to people’s lives.” Mick notes that “male suicide has in recent years continued to rise, both within the community and custodial settings,” adding that “putting this into practice within a secure environment was a challenge [involving] creating a space with reduced levels of staff supervision and encouraging men to discuss their innermost demons with other prisoners.” But, says Mick, “He would not be deterred! And over the next six months he worked tirelessly with Luke Ambler to re-create Luke’s vision into a custodial environment… Attendance at Humber is now approximately 70 men per session.” As Mick also notes,
“That’s 70 men who may have continued to bottle up their anxieties – and 70 men who may have considered that enough was enough.”
Luke Ambler, the Founder of Andy’s Man Club, says:
“Ryan has played a key role in the setting up of Andy’s Man Club groups in prisons. His enthusiasm and passion behind the cause matched that of the AMC team and they knew he was the right man to lead the Andy’s Man Club charge in prison. It has proved exactly that, with his tireless work to get men inside prison to open up and talk. He continues to grow the movement inside the fences and the men in prison are getting an outlet to express themselves and he deserves credit for all he has done and continues to do. Ryan is a modest man and would hate the thought of been nominated for an award and that’s why I think he deserves it, as it just shows he does what he does for the right reasons.”
HMP Humber Governor Dobson says “Ryan’s drive and determination helped to launch and establish an initiative that possibly helped men to off-load and share their issues.”
Meanwhile, several prisoners have also added testimony about the project, with one saying: “I was isolated when I first arrived to prison, as I’d never been here before. The AMC group has brought me out of my shell and now I feel part of something. It gives me an opportunity to talk about my problems.” Another simply said, “The lads are really using this time to open up.”
Yorkshire Prisons Group Director Paul Foweather says: “Ryan is an ambassador for the Yorkshire Prisons Group, working hard to help people change their lives and make a difference to those men in our care.”
Ryan himself describes how the project’s initial impact: “There were tears, laughter and just simply a weight taken from people.” He concludes, movingly:
“When you listen to a man in custody, someone you have known for a long time, explain that they would have never disclosed how they really felt to you, if you had not said, ‘it’s okay to talk,’ it’s heart-breaking. Knowing now that so many men are achieving a relief and building relationships, from a simple concept of a room, with chairs, a cuppa and a simple message, is beyond reward for me.”
With thanks to Yorkshire Prisons Group, especially initial nominator and Line Manager Kerry Hirst, Butler Trust Local Champion and YPG Business Manager Mick Mills, YPG Director Paul Fowether, as well as to Founder of Andy’s Men’s Club Luke Ambler, HMP Humber Governor Dobson, and several anonymous prisoners, for their contributions.