A former drug lord is combining with a controversial private prison to tackle the “runaway train” of gangs behind bars. There have been many doubters, but now, they’re outnumbered by supporters.
The incarcerated killer is older and leaner than most of his housemates. His skin less tattooed, and less disfigured by scarring. He is also the most confident, leaning forward in his metal chair, painted a similar grey to his long cotton prison shorts. He sits with one hand on his right thigh, the other is energetic like his speech. His open palm cuts small shadows in the afternoon sun, sneaking through a split in the faded pink curtains.
He speaks with immaculate grammar, and eloquence, no ums and ahs. His flatmates in the low security residence Te Ara ki Pūwhakamua sit in a circle of chairs, fellow prisoners each with their own grim record. Between them, histories of orchestrating drug syndicates, merciless violent attacks and heinous rape crimes.
He is also speaking to ‘Bill’, Billy Macfarlane, a free man, who believes the nine inmates in the living room can successfully transition from high, to low-security imprisonment, then eventually parole away from Wiri, and on to a life without offending.
Years ago, Macfarlane had urged the then-homicidal man to sort his act out behind bars. The prisoner had said he wasn’t ready. Finally, after more violent offending, he came back to Macfarlane, open to change.
“This last sentence, it has been 17 years,” the man says, then shrugs: “It doesn’t seem like a whole lot compared to a lot of other guys.
“I have tried a lot of other things, Māori-sort-of courses, through the duration of this sentence, as well as other sentences. And they just didn’t cut it. They didn’t cut it. It felt like, to me – it might be a nasty word to use – but it felt like tokenism to me.”
The man, who has whakapapa Māori through his “very colonised” mother and father, clears his throat and chews his tongue briefly.
“Corrections were just sort of getting us to jump through hoops.”
After decades of ungodly, heinous behaviour, the man says his Pūwhakamua course with Macfarlane has been “a godsend”.
“I’ve just grabbed it with everything, both hands, toes, everything. And I’m just running with it, you know? Because to me, it’s my birthright.”
Pūwhakamua means ‘to shoot forth’. In practical terms, that means a strict timetable starting with karakia, every day, every week, in the residence.
The cream brick walls are covered in A3 posters, the words to the karakia, words to haka, and waiata, written out by hand in black, red and green permanent marker. A collage taped up in gaps between the television, heat pump and vacuum cleaner.
On three weekdays, the men, in their burgundy t-shirts with ASCF (Auckland South Corrections Facility) on the back, spend their mornings learning and practising te reo Māori and kapa haka. Their voices echo out to the neighbouring residences around the concrete basketball court.
The other two weekday mornings are quieter, side by side, listening to tikanga wānanga – some taking notes on pads and exercise books.
Their weekday afternoons require three hours of exercise, whakapakari tinana, and on the weekends the housemates practise conversing in te reo Māori – new kupu, new words for the men, but with sounds, and meanings centuries old. Every day finishes as it starts, with karakia.
The ten men in this whare are ‘low security’, enabling their two-storey flat-like living situation.
On this warm November afternoon, it has a homely façade, tidied for a visiting party.
There are board games, Ludo and chess, on top of the cupboard. Custard powder, cocoa and peanut butter on the shelf. Folded tea towels, alongside the oven, kettle, crockpot and toaster. And even knives for cooking, albeit leashed and locked to the kitchen bench by the sink.
The flatmates have all signed a 13-point contract to every day stick to the timetable and protocol, their kawa. Or leave.
They have to be drug-free. Gambling-free. Gang-free. And crime-free for at least the past six months. For many, it’s the first time in decades.
The convicted killer knows it never should have taken that long.
But social rebellion came naturally to a young man whose parents were beaten for simply speaking te reo.
“It breaks me,” he says. “It shatters me. It’s so sad. And I think you’ll find that with all of us here, and the prison’s full of guys like that ae.”
The former president of a Killer Beez chapter, a few metres away, looks up from the grey carpet, and agrees. A long skeleton hand, with a middle finger salute, is etched onto one of his limbs.
He first joined the gang at age 11. After being brought up in foster homes and sexually abused, he felt like he “didn’t belong to anything.” He would steal fruit from trees to feed himself as a child, then worked for members “in the bullet shops” to stop going hungry. He made friends, he stayed, he became one of them.
There was notoriety, millions of dollars from proceeds of crime, fancy cars, and an acceptance that jail was always going to be a part of his life, with intervals of three, four or five years away from family. Loved ones were broken-hearted every time.
When he first saw Pūwhakamua, he wanted to cheat the system.
“I thought to myself, ‘I can play this fella, I can play this fella and get out of here’,” the ex-president recalls.
But emotionally, he wrestled with a “void” he says he tried and failed to fill, then tried to deny. After months, he decided to give Pūwhakamua a chance, sincerely.
“I’ve never come across anything, in my 25-plus years that I’ve been coming to prison that’s filled a void in here,” he says pointing to his chest. “The void is being filled now.”
And that, he says, was enough for him to put down his patch, like every other flatmate had, before transferring to the residence.
Physically, leaving was harder for the former Black Power member inside for 11 years, sitting by the guitar. He was raised in a gang pad, and is tattooed from head to toe with the insignia, the clenched fist. Those on his cheeks are a paler shade – he is getting them removed.
For the younger man with black shoulder-length hair, sitting near the door, the catalyst for leaving his chapter was the death of his toddler, while he was serving time.
His expression is stricken, recalling the gravity of his pain and separation in the most acute moments of grief, during his longest sentence to date.
“It enforced me wanting to change my life, so I’m not here in jail, when more people that I love die.”
He acknowledges his exposure to the ‘club’ will never subside – most of his family and friends are members or affiliates, many constantly in and out of court.
At Kohuora, the prison also known as Wiri Men’s Prison or Auckland South, the youthful man still greets associates, or “associates of associates”, but no longer with a gang sign. “All I see is people,” he says.
His eldest son, who once said he wanted a patch like Dad’s, now aspires to be a “superhero”, the proud father tells the room, with a small smile.
He pulls back his hair from his face a little, when he talks about getting out: “To be a better son for my parents, a better parent than I have been and just an awesome Māori.”
What does he mean by that?
He offers Te Paati Māori leader Rawiri Waititi as an example.
“There’s a tattooed face in Parliament. That’s cool.”
Letting a former offender like Billy Macfarlane (Ngāti Pikiao) into Kohuora – our second largest and only privately run prison – was a risk for Serco, a multinational still suffering reputational damage from videoed fight clubs at Mt Eden Prison, shared widely online in 2015.
The same Serco that Parole Board Chair Sir Ron Young condemned last year for a “very poor” standard of psychological reports, some completed by interns, some without interviews with prisoners.
The same Serco that Sir Ron described as failing to perform “even the most basic functions”, in a letter to Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis just under two years ago. He told the minister inmates had been significantly disadvantaged and they were in one of the worst performing prisons in the country.
And the same Serco that last year lost a prisoner suspected of using a knife to kill himself, and another to suspected suicide within the grounds just six months later in March. That was a time when family and friends had not been allowed to visit for six months, amid Covid restrictions, and the spread of hundreds of cases. Infected prisoners were stuck in cells for 24 hours a day.
The positivity expressed by Macfarlane’s participants is not representative of the overall mood at the prison. Inmates yell aggressively from behind barred, open windows in another unit. They tell a visitor walking around the freshly mown rugby field to “get f…ed”.
Macfarlane earned millions dealing meth, and lived in a Tauranga mansion before being caught and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
He can list off instances of being run over three times (once by a boat towed on a trailer), shot once, escaping from three prisons, rioting at Waikeria and too many brawls to count.
His knuckles are buckled from breaks, and he has scattered scars from head to toe. If you ask about the unforgettably thick one around the back of his shaved scalp, he jokes it’s from a brain transplant – when he swapped a colonised brain for a decolonised Māori one.
He has had countless doubters since he quit offending, and started teaching others how to do the same through cultural immersion education.
In fact, in documents released under the Official Information Act, Corrections staff were internally unsupportive and highly critical of the programme in its early days in 2018, saying Macfarlane had “neither the skills nor the capability to manage a group of high-risk offenders”.
They thought the programme could be used for prospecting, and questioned the Rotorua police support for the programme, saying officers “may not understand the inherent risk”.
When a judge approved of Pūwhakamua, a staff member emailed a colleague, referencing the judge’s decision disapprovingly: “Thanks for the outcome thought he would get it.”
Corrections met with Macfarlane to improve their relationship, but at that stage, he had not sought to have Pūwhakamua formally approved by the department.
Now it is, and now Corrections is looking at paying Pūwhakamua to expand.
The Provincial Growth Fund has also backed Macfarlane, through a $976,000 grant to the trust overseeing the programme.
But perhaps the strongest endorsements come from judges’ sentencing decisions, directing offenders to Macfarlane, ordering they participate in Pūwhakamua behind and out of bars, even after decades of recidivism.
One man, who had spent more than 15 of the past 20 years incarcerated across 11 different prisons between Auckland and Christchurch, was sentenced by Justice Brewer in 2019 for beating his mother, fracturing her eye socket and nose.
“The Pūwhakamua Programme is one that would suit you,” Brewer told the man in the dock.
“Not just because of the cultural context but because of the way the cultural context is shaped to focus on behaviour and the need to change behaviour. I think the programme is impressive.”
Chris Burns realised Pūwhakamua was likely working when incident numbers dropped at Kohuora. ‘Incidents’ are when prisoners are charged with offending in jail – charges like assault or possessing contraband.
Sitting in an upstairs admin block office on a lunch break, Burns – the residential deputy director – can observe parts of the pentagon-shape grounds enclosing 960 beds, keeping keys and access cards handy and a security radio buzzing into one ear. He answers interview questions at the same time.
‘Incidents’ steadily fell in the Te Whare o Te Whaiora segregation unit from 18 in July 2020, to three per month, in May, June and July 2022, and four in each of March and April.
The rest of Serco – one of the world’s largest providers of public services – took note and awarded the unit the company’s highest level of internal recognition, a Global Pulse Award.
In the high-security Ngā Hau e Whā unit, incidents fell from 16 in January 2021, to four in August 2021, a month after the programme was introduced. For the past six months, there have been no more than three incidents per month.
Burns says he’s never seen anything like it in his career.
Then the Parole Board, which has heavily criticised Serco, began directing prisoners in the residence to continue Pūwhakamua upon release, in Rotorua.
“I think that talks volumes,” Burns says.
“This is the most successful operation where we’ve ended up with units where they’re just living together and there’s harmony.”
Burns believes the programme should be spread wider within Wiri and into every prison across the country.
“If we could clone what’s going on here and put a scatter across the whole country, then absolutely. Because it just has such a positive effect.”
His colleague, Sarah Beardsley is a Pākehā project coordinator with a strong British accent, who often finds herself crying with pride behind her black, thick-framed glasses, when she sees the high-security prisoners haka, waiata, and kōrero Māori, during pōwhiri.
She nods at Burns’ answers and swivels towards the window.
“That unit Ngā Hau e Whā has a better incident rate than most of the other units (including low security) on the site, which is pretty unbelievable.”
Prisoners show high respect for her. It happens to be her birthday. They sing ‘Hari Huritau’ no fewer than three times, in the wing and residence she visits. One prisoner gifts her a bright blue, clay-carved taonga made in an onsite workshop, wrapped with a tea towel. They share vanilla-iced banana cake.
Trust, she says, was hard to build between staff and prisoners when Pūwhakamua was introduced. She worried it would all unravel during the Omicron outbreak, when wānanga and te reo classes were restricted to bubbles and Zoom.
“Instead of going the other way and just destroying everything that they’d built, they kept going.”
But how does this endorsement for Pūwhakamua from prisoners, members of the judiciary, the Parole Board and Serco itself, marry up with the same prison, the same contractor, that has faced scathing feedback from those outside parties for failings in other areas of wellbeing?
In a written statement, Serco says staff and prisoners were provided counselling after deaths in custody. Covid-infected people restricted to their cells were “visited daily by health and custodial staff”.
Kohuora’s psychologists have to produce more reports than any other prison in Aotearoa, Serco says.
“We are working to overcome challenges to ensuring prisoners are parole-ready: challenges include prisoners who are transferred to Kohuora close to their parole date or prisoners who need to attend programmes addressing criminogenic behaviour which are not delivered here and require transfer to another prison.”
In the high-security unit that Friday afternoon, Ngā Hau e Whā inmates have been preparing for their own challenge.
Sneakers squeak on the spotless lino floors and there’s a faint smell of Janola.
There’s a shelf at one end, with nearly 20 books – six by Bill Bryson, slotted between others like Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, and She Is Not Your Rehab written by New Zealanders Matt and Sarah Brown.
The cells form a ring around the outside – looking down on the more open space at ground level. They are numbered in English and te reo, with huge handles – the type that take two hands to twist. Some have shoes, raincoats, and towels hanging off them to dry.
The unit houses 58 men with tattoos from nine different gangs, some with BP (Black Power), some with MMM in red (Mighty Mongrel Mob), some with TMC FTW (Tribesmen Motorcycle Club F… the World) on their shins, arms, faces, thighs.
There are numbers inked too, like 88 for the Head Hunters. Other tattoos depict blackish-coloured skulls, eagles and women.
Unlike the residence, active members are allowed in the unit, but they are expected to be learning how to detach themselves, to recognise each other by whakapapa not patch.
Some of the men are clearly less detached than others. Some still roll up their green prison shorts and grey t-shirts to show their ‘club’ colours. One man wears swastika earrings, showing Mongrel Mob affiliations.
On this occasion, they stand wide-legged in rows, and then the room erupts with the lines and stomps of the haka pōwhiri.
“… Ko te rākau matua, hou …”
The most important stick
” … Te tāniko e whenu mai nei …”
Is the finger that is pointing at you
They are welcoming Scotty Morrison (Ngāti Whakaue), the author of their study books, the host of the news they watch, Te Karere.
Security cameras with 360-degree views watch them, hanging from the middle of the ceiling, beside the fluorescent light panels.
Shortly after, they sing E Kiwi E. Some rise on their heels to get the high notes, others sway, some clasp their hands below their torsos.
During the pōwhiri, a man locked up for shooting and killing an ex-gang member, stands and acknowledges Morrison in te reo Māori. Then he lines up afterwards at a lunch table to get his Māori Made Easy book autographed.
When Morrison leads a wānanga, the prisoners sit still. Some repeat back the words they learn. There are chuckles, hearing the kupu ‘haumi’ (said similarly to ‘homie’ in English) has a similar meaning in te reo Māori – ally.
High-security prisoners who want to be considered for the Te Ara ki Pūwhakamua residence have to stay in the cultural unit for at least six months, but it is just one of the 13 criteria.
Among those intending to make the transition is a middle-aged man, serving a 13-year sentence.
He sits on a chair, a bit small for his stocky build, by the volleyball court outside. He looks through the fence, out past the CCTV cameras, the grass, and the curled wires.
He is uneasy, less comfortable than those in the nearby flat, and sits with crossed arms, sometimes nervously shuffling his feet, or bouncing a knee, often holding his breath. He tries not to draw attention to himself.
But Macfarlane says the man’s ability to talk about emotions behind Wiri’s walls barely existed before.
“It’s pretty hard,” the prisoner says – facing separation from loved ones for more than a decade.
“Now, I’m all about just getting back – to my family, fighting for my wife. She is definitely struggling through, the struggle is real out there without me being there. So I need to get out and be with them.”
He had been moved around prisons during this sentence, and was in the same high-security unit before it became a cultural unit, before Pūwhakamua was introduced. Life was harder then, he says.
“It was nothing like what it is now. It was like – pretty much you got to sit with your back to the wall.”
He saw people from other gangs as “potential enemies”. Now, some of them are his friends. The rest, he believes, just want to get on with their lives like him. Or in Billy Macfarlane’s words, the men are being taught problem-solving skills through tikanga, talking through conflict, “before someone is punched in the head”.
And although this prisoner has been behind bars all along, he feels Pūwhakamua has been somewhat freeing, to the extent he is one of those in the high-security unit who has left their gang.
“It was tough but it was the right thing to do.”
He knew nothing about his whakapapa before the programme. Now, when orators analyse histories of navigators, chiefs, warriors and waka on television, he knows what they’re talking about.
But his underlying regrets haunt him. When asked what he is looking forward to when out, he responds: “I’m too far away from my release date to think about that. I’ll just take one day at a time … What I done [sic] I shouldn’t have done, but I’m paying the price for it now.”
The intergenerational harm of colonisation is present across most areas of life in Aotearoa New Zealand. It festers especially in our justice system.
Quarterly data collected by the Department of Corrections show 53 per cent of our 7964 prisoners in September were Māori, despite Māori making up around 17.5 per cent of the general population in Aotearoa.
Many of those who have committed awful crimes creating deep and lasting pain have themselves been victims too. University of Auckland research analysing hundreds of offenders aged 10-24, has shown between 60 and 70 per cent grew up with family violence in their homes.
Researchers have long reported a link between colonisation and gang membership – a consequence of the “rigours and racism” as described by one criminologist, a “no-brainer” according to another. This year, an estimated 77 per cent of current gang members are Māori.
Gang membership, meanwhile, has climbed to 8300, up from 4301 when detailed records began nearly twelve years ago.
Corrections estimates more than 1 in 3 imprisoned people in Aotearoa are gang-affiliated.
The costs of keeping people locked up, meanwhile, have also risen to $531 per day, per person serving time.
Could it be that Billy Macfarlane, and Serco – who have both deserved their fair share of negative press in that very system – have part of the solution? Macfarlane is sure of it.
“When men take ownership of the past and can actually stand in a group, sit in a group of 50 other men and cry, and talk about sexual abuse from childhood, that, it’s huge,” he says.
“Because these men don’t talk about this sort of stuff. When you can see gang members stand up to being gang members their whole lives, and say ‘I’m done, I’m out of the gang, this is what I want to do’. There’s so many of those stories here.”
There is a mix of ruthlessness, frustration, humour, and compassion about Macfarlane.
Some immediately trust his demeanour. Others find it jarring, disconcerting and suspicious. In the early days, he was called a wanker, for thinking an ex-drug lord could help others reform. He felt stonewalled.
Although his doubters, particularly in the public service, appear to be waning, that hasn’t stopped him defiantly criticising the government.
Gang membership, he says, is a “runaway train”, and “prisons are the gangs’ biggest breeding ground”.
In its current state, Pūwhakamua is too small to turn the tide.”There’s wings full of them [gang members] still and we don’t have the manpower to give them all help.”
The programme can only help people when they are ready, and often there is no clear right or wrong way for Macfarlane and his team to determine who is. “You can’t fix up 900 people at a time.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Armon Tamatea (Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga-A-Maahaki), a University of Waikato senior lecturer and researcher, worked for the Department of Corrections, Ara Poutama Aotearoa for a decade. In his career, he has flown and driven across the country for fieldwork in all 15 of our men’s prisons.
He has seen change behind the wire, from 20 years ago, when in his opinion “a lot of the staff were very sexist, and very racist, and casually so, not cross-burning racist”.
“But they had a certain casualness about that, especially towards young people.”
Some workers, he says, were resentful – “and the young people had to wear that, which they shouldn’t have.”
But Corrections’ staffing now has a near 50/50 gender split, and just under 50 per cent of employees are non-European.
In recent years, Tamatea says he’s noticed a “professionalisation”.”The way the staff talk to the guys inside as well, by and large, has a different tone.”
When he describes traditional rehabilitation programmes in jails, he uses terms like “manualised” – based on books – and “standardised delivery”.
“That’s the status quo, that’s kind of how things have been running in Ara Poutama for a long time.”
Psychologists and programme facilitators tend to not come from the same neighbourhoods or same histories as people who end up in the services, Tamatea says.
For some inmates, this can lead to suspicion, and resentment. But programmes based on “experience and street knowledge” like Pūwhakamua, run by an ex-offender, can work instead, Tamatea thinks, because these facilitators “understand the issues very differently”.
“That’s a powerful thing for people who are going through those struggles to actually see someone who’s actually lived through it and survived it.”
Corrections now has 30 externally contracted providers running tikanga programmes under a national strategy, Hōkai Rangi, to elevate Te Ao Māori in prisons, including Kohuora. The Government ring-fenced $98m to support this strategy in its 2019 Budget.
But the use of pōwhiri in prisons, and widespread Māori names for prisons, to some, is window dressing and inappropriate, in such a colonised space.
The name of the youth prison, also sited in Wiri, is Korowai Manaaki – words describing a cloak to care and nurture, and arguably, not previously used widely, to define juvenile detention. Barrister Kingi Snelgar (Ngāpuhi, Te Whakatōhea, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāi Tahu) is a strong opponent. “Korowai” now means “lock-up” to his youth clients.
Tamatea is in two minds. Initially he was very opposed to prison units having Māori names and kaupapa, even those endorsed by mana whenua. “My view was then that when you put a Māori name on anything, that implies that this is somewhere Māori belong.”
The flip side has softened his views: “These are also places where healing takes place.”
When men from the cultural residence Te Ara ki Pūwhakamua (the path to Pūwhakamua) are released, all things going well, they will go to Rotorua. The community rehabilitation programme run by Tikanga Aroro runs for one year.
This includes, weekly, 20 hours of te reo Māori classes, ten hours of wānanga, community service at tangihanga and marae, waiata and kapa haka, mahi toi art, group fitness, and employment or educational training for full-time employment.
Macfarlane, in his current capacity, can only take up to 20 men a year, alongside the 150 he works with, at Kohuora.
But offenders are human beings, and they don’t easily adjust to change. Not all has gone to plan.
Of the 17 who have graduated so far, over the last four years, three have reoffended, about 17 per cent of the small sample size. While their recidivism is a disappointment to Macfarlane, 17 per cent is dramatically lower than the national average. Seventy per cent of prisoners in Aotearoa are reconvicted within two years following release.
When men walk out of the back-to-back gates and doors of Kohuora, Sarah Beardsley joins them. They drive from Auckland through Waikato to Bay of Plenty, past the urban sprawl, the incline through the ngāhere of the Kaimāī Range, then down directly to the sacred, jade-coloured waters of the Awahou River, Te Wai Mimi o Pekehaua – protected by the taniwha Pekehaua.
For centuries, mana whenua Ngāti Rangiwewehi have been taking people to Pekehaua to free them of mental torment.
The men, just released from prison, plunge their bodies into the awa, rise, and plunge again repeatedly for cleansing, before they are taken further east to their new home on a semi-rural edge of Rotorua suburbs.
For the men still inside, whose days can be arduous, repetitive, and are most definitely restrictive, they are not oblivious to the years it will take for them to earn the right to leave and live outside like this.
But they say they look at their jail time differently now.
Recently, the ex-Killer Beez president at Te Ara ki Pūwhakamua had a birthday. He reckons he’s only just passed halfway in his lifetime.
“There’s still time for me,” he says. “I’m only 45, I’ve still got another solid 40 years to go. I can’t do much about the picture painted in my children’s hearts, in my family’s hearts thus far. But I know and I’m confident I can damn sure make a better picture for them to look at, over the next couple of years.”
These days, he wears a thickly strapped watch with a large round face on his left hand.
As does the convicted killer, his one, stainless steel.
“Before [Pūwhakamua] I couldn’t see the finish line. I just thought, you know, ‘F the world I’ll just keep going till the wheels fall off’,” the older man explains, his voice racing a little.
“Now I can start seeing the finish line now. Soon. I think I can be out within three to five years, possibly. Which is nothing to me. Nothing.”
Time will – in part – be the judge.