A new program is tackling a sober reality for NZ’s Maori, who make up 15% of the country’s population but half of those behind bars
For the most part Te Ao Mārama looks just like the other low to medium security units at Waikeria prison. Sixty cells surround a central yard on three sides. On the fourth is a dining hall, behind that the meeting areas and offices. The perimeter fence is lined with coils of barbed wire, over which fantails dart back and forth, pecking at the grass.
Here, however, pou whenua (traditional posts) which have been carved by inmates, rise from the ground along with the ageing basketball hoop. Visitors pass through not just the sliding grey security fence, but also the ornate gateway, or waharoa. For the prisoners, the experience is untypical too, with just about every part of the rehabilitative program underpinned by Māori principles, or tikanga Māori.
Te Ao Mārama (World of Light) is one of five units around the country that make up the Te Tirohanga, or Focus, program. Together they represent a small attempt to tackle a huge problem: the alarmingly disproportionate quotient of indigenous people locked up in New Zealand prisons.
With 8,500 prisoners among a national population of 4.5 million, New Zealand ranks as one of the highest jailers in the developed world. But as has been repeatedly highlighted in reports by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Māori component is staggering. While those who identify as Māori make up about 15% of the New Zealand population, the corresponding figure behind bars is more than 50%. Among women, for whom there is no Te Tirohanga option, it is higher still, at 60%.
The most recent data suggests more than six of every 10 Māori prisoners will be back inside within 48 months. At its core, the rehabilitation-focused approach of Te Tirohanga is an attempt to interrupt the tendency for jails to act as recruitment centres for gangs and incubators for further criminality.
“Let me explain it to you like this,” says Jay, leaning his hand on a table covered in flax in the unit’s craft room. “When I got here, I walked in the gates, got a powhiri [formal welcome], and stood up in front of 60 men to tell them where I was from. I couldn’t say that in Māori, so that really made me want to get in touch with my Māori side, learn my whakapapa [ancestry].”
Jay (not his real name), who is nearing the end of the six-phase, 18-month program, says he has gained “a better understanding of things, knowing who my people are, where my mother’s roots lay. Suppose you can’t really go anywhere without knowing where you come from, eh? Sort of just stabbing the dark before I come to this unit. No purpose. Now I’ve got a vision for what I want to do, where I want to be in life.”
It is not exclusive to prisoners with Māori blood. “Any culture can come here and learn, but they learn under the Māori environment,” explains a warden at the unit. One non-Māori, with pale complexion and ginger hair, says he joined the program because he had been living in a Māori community. He had only been at Te Ao Mārama for a few weeks but already it had “changed the way I see things”.
As evinced in the All Black haka, the Air NZ koru or the powhiri for tourists, New Zealand enjoys a popular image of indigenous and settler cultures comfortably integrated. The impact of colonisation is, of course, much more complicated. Numerous breaches by the state of the Treaty of Waitangi, the document signed between the British crown and leaders of iwi, or tribes, in 1840, saw swathes of land, in many cases the traditional tūrangawaewae, or “place to stand”, forcibly taken from Māori. Waves of urbanisation amplified the tendency for generations of Māori to grow distanced from their iwi, language and culture. Part of the ambition of a program such as Te Tirohanga is to restore that cultural link.
“Some of these guys, when they come here, they actually have a very distorted view of what it is to be Māori, and those distorted views often justify offending behaviour,” says Neil Campbell, the director of Māori for the Department of Corrections, citing the work by Māori health academic Sir Mason Durie.
Nowhere are those identity distortions, in Campbell’s terms, more apparent than in gangs, and the scale of affiliation to the Maori-dominated Mongrel Mob and Black Power gangs is inked in tattoos across the men’s bodies at Te Ao Mārama. Such groups have thrived in lower socioeconomic parts of New Zealand, and are widely associated with organised criminality.
“A copybook classic distorted view of being Māori might be, ‘we come from a warrior race, we don’t take any shit from anyone, if I want something I take it’,” says Campbell. “Another distortion might be ‘women from our culture sit down, shut up and don’t say anything – and if they do they get a smack in the face.”
When prisoners arrive “in an environment like this”, says Campbell, waving his pen above his head, “we turn that distortion around. We actually come from a matriarchal culture that isn’t about suppressing women. In fact, women lead all the events. Men do some of the show-pony stuff, but women are coordinating everything.”
The Te Tirohanga approach emphasises from the outset the involvement of the offender’s whānau in the rehabilitation process, says Campbell. And here whānau means more than the “one-dimensional idea” of family: “it’s not limited to biological relations or even associates, it’s broader than that, and it’s specific about supporting positivity … we say in environments like this you must include and involve whānau in as many aspects of the intervention as possible.”
That relationship often involves iwi, or tribes, many of which have become increasingly well-equipped and willing to play a role in the rehabilitation process, says Campbell, having agreed settlements with the government over long-standing grievances relating to breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Early results suggest Te Tirohanga, introduced in 2014 to replace its Māori Focus Unit predecessor, is on track to meet or better the overall Corrections department target of a 25% reduction on the 2011 rate of reoffending by 2017, says Campbell.
In pursuing that target, the obvious focus, “whether we like or not”, says Campbell, must be “all these brown people that whakapapa to an iwi somewhere … If this is such a great program, why are we limiting it to the five whare [units]? Why aren’t we running it in the community? Why don’t women have access to it?”
Maramax Fox, co-leader of the government-supporting Māori party has called for a tikanga-based unit to be introduced at Mt Eden Remand prison in Auckland, a facility that has been at the centre of controversy in recent weeks, relating to organised inmate violence, contraband, and the performance of Serco, the UK-based multinational that operates Mt Eden, one of two private prisons in New Zealand.
The minister of corrections, Sam Lotu-Iiga, says that while there are no firm plans to upscale Te Tirohanga, “we are looking at expanding some of the Māori programs. What we’re doing is taking an evidence-based approach to rehabilitation.” Policy, he says, is informed by an “investment approach, which is what taxpayers demand”.
Asked about criticisms by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which says not enough is being done by the government, Lotu-Iiga insists progress is being made. “I think we’re seeing things change over time. I think we’re seeing education achievement levels for Māori improve over time.”
He points too, to the government’s ongoing treaty settlement process. “I’m certainly proud of our record – the number of treaty settlements that we’ve put through over the last seven years. Certainly, that is something that needs to be addressed; I think most New Zealanders would agree, we’re trying to redress some of the grievances that have gone on.”
Why are Māori so disproportionately locked up? “The greatest weight of the answer is quite straightforward,” comes the answer from a 2008 Corrections report, which attempts to address the “alarming degree” of the imbalance. “Over-representation in the criminal justice system is very much what could be predicted given the combination of individuals’ life experiences and circumstances, regardless of ethnicity.”