Correcting Corrections: Are prison reforms repairing Māori inequities?
With Māori still making up half the prison population, justice advocates fear changes to bring down incarceration rates have lost momentum.
Labour campaigned on reform, and last year the government launched Hōkai Rangi – a long-term strategy rooted in Māori values, which aims to reduce the Māori prison population by 10 percent in five years.
However, with nearly half of those released from prison being reconvicted within a year, big promises of a shake up of the justice system are feared to be stalling.
Justice advocate Sir Kim Workman says when the government came to power it threw down the gauntlet, declaring the justice system broken and racist.
He says it vowed to take action – and things looked promising, but things seem to have stalled.
“We’ve been waiting I think, and the public has been waiting expectantly, for something more to happen. We haven’t seen those reports actioned, so there’s a bit of public disenchantment,” he says.
Sir Kim says the focus needs to be on ensuring fewer Māori end up in prison in the first place. He says changes to the Bail Act brought in under National in 2013 have driven up the number of Māori on remand.
“The problem was that the remand prisons became a major recruiting ground for the gangs and we had young Māori ending up in there, for the first time often, getting bashed up by the gangs and threatened if they didn’t join.”
Justice Minister Andrew Little criticised this law in 2018, but no action was taken.
A fundamentally racist system
Criminal lawyer Annabel Cresswel says many young Māori offenders are also denied bail because they live in low-socio economic communities, with gang associations.
“There’s just a pathway to prison the first time they do the slightest thing wrong, but you get a white, middle class person who does something wrong, does some stealing, and they’ll get diversion and they’ll have a nice bail address and they can just leave that sort of early mistake behind.
“Fundamentally you have a racist system.”
She says it is a Pākehā system.
“Of course it’s improving and of course it’s getting better but we don’t have a system that embraces the culture of Māori. I’ve heard it described as a cold, white way of looking for justice.”
Barrister Kingi Snelgar says Māori are treated differently to Pākehā at every stage of the justice system.
“The issue is where there’s discretion it’s always exercised against Māori. I certainly have had cases myself where I have questioned would this have been a different case if my client was Pākehā and I think that it would have been.”
He wants to see a more holistic approach to sentencing – so that people aren’t pinged for minor crimes, that suck them into the churn of the system.
“I’m not saying it’s an easy task but one simple way is for the police and for prosecutors to really review – is it worth putting this person through the court system given the impact that we know it has.”
Snelgar says generations of Māori are deeply embedded into the justice system, and truly transformative change is needed – because piecemeal and token reform won’t break the cycle.
Waylyn Tahuri-Whaipakanga is the provider for kaupapa Māori rehabilitation programmes at Waikeria, Hawke’s Bay, and Rimutaka prisons.
“A lot of men who enter prison don’t know which marae they belong to, don’t know which iwi.
“Getting an understanding of it yourself is important to men, and this is what the men tell us, it’s not what we’re saying as an organisation.”
She has worked in prisons for more than 20 years.
“We’re at the start of a journey. you can’t fix the system that’s been going for years in five minutes. This is the … biggest jump I’ve seen.”
While the percentage of Māori men in prison has stayed relatively steady over the last term – Māori women have increased from 56 to nearly 63 percent.
National justice spokesperson Simon Bridges say the circumstances behind Māori overrepresentation are shameful but Māori are also overrepresented in victim statistics.
“And so that doesn’t automatically lead to a position where you say ‘you know what, we need to soften up on this’. I still make the deterrence point that I’ve made.
He says he doesn’t think there should be lighter sentences or more discretion – but that the approach to rehabilitating Māori prisoners should be different.
“Bluntly put, for that serious violence offence let’s say, or that gang-related drug offending, there will be a jail term. But what that looks like and how we deal with you to ensure you are rehabilitated and reintegrated successfully into society may be quite different if you have Māori whakapapa.
Labour Justice Spokesperson Andrew Little says major change takes time – and must also be made at a pace that maintains public confidence.
“There are, you know, a lot of voices out there who are skeptical about the need for change and you’ve still got to … deal with that. It’s about working with communities.”
He says change must also be driven for Māori, by Māori.
“We need to work with iwi and with community Māori organisations on things that are gonna work and give them the ability to support people going through the justice system.”
Last year the government launched Hōkai Rangi. It is not a Māori-only strategy, but rather the primary strategy for Corrections – aimed at reducing the Māori prison population by 10 percent in five years, and down to 16 percent of the prison population in the long term.
It sees Māori decision making at key levels, a focus on humanising prisoners, and involving whānau in their rehabilitation. Last year, $98 million was also invested in rolling out the Māori pathways programme at Hawke’s Bay and Northland Prisons.
Labour Corrections spokesperson Kelvin Davis says an inter-prison kapa haka competition, in which nine prisons competed, is an example of how things have changed under the strategy.
“People are saying for the first time they’re seeing an organisation like Corrections taking advice from the Māori community and people have been calling out for that for the last 160 years,” he says.
“I mean we’ve had prisons in New Zealand for 160 years that basically followed the same model and it just hasn’t worked.”
“That’s a start, and that’s low-hanging fruit. You know, there’s a lot of discipline in kapa haka, there’s a lot of learning, there’s a lot of background in what they’re singing and doing hakas about.”
He says he wants it expanded to all prisons, and for their whānau to be able to watch.
“You know, some of these people will never have won or achieved anything else in their lives but they are achieving in the kapa haka stage albeit behind bars and I think that’s wonderful and it’s just an example of what we’re going to do.”
Awatea Mita was released from prison nearly six years ago. She now works to reintegrate former prisoners into society and says Māori women have a harder time trying to parent while inside.
“When a man goes to prison they have their partner at home who’s able to maintain the family but when a woman goes to prison the family falls apart. So not only are they doing their time within the prison system but potentially also having to deal with families falling apart on the outside.”
Mita does not think Hōkai Rangi has led to much more compassionate and humane treatment of prisoners.
“If that was happening I would expect to hear about it. Instead I’m hearing about conditions that are worse than when I was in prison.”
She says the time for reports and reviews has passed and what’s needed now is action – and a reckoning in New Zealand’s justice system.
Kelvin Davis argues transformation will take time, and he is worried National would walk back all the progress.
However, National’s corrections spokesperson Simeon Brown says his party supports Hōkai Rangi.
“There is a need to look at how you can rehabilitate people and there is different cultural approaches to how that can be done and we’re fully supportive but at the same time we’re not going to be the party which reduces sentences or gets people out quickly and puts the public at risk.
Brown says National would focus things like its proposed Clean Start programme – which would offer relocation to prisoners when they get out -and they would scrap Labour’s prison numbers target.
“We do want to see fewer people going into prison but that’s because we want to see less crime taking place. And that is what should be driving a reduction in the prison population – not a target which then drives the system with the wrong incentives.”