Shane Te Pou: Māori-led prison reform signals welcome shift in Crown’s thinking


I remember as if it were yesterday the beginning of my fourth form year at Kawerau High School. It was packed to the rafters, mostly with Māori kids like me; cheeky, full of life.

We weren’t big into career planning at the time but, if you’d asked, most of the boys would’ve said we wanted, or at least expected, to follow in our dads’ footsteps – get a job at the mill, earn a good wage, build a family, make a life.

Maybe, if we were good enough, play for the local rugby club, even get a reps jersey. Modest aspirations, maybe, but it was enough.

These were good kids from good families.

The next year, Rogernomics descended and unemployment hit like a thunderbolt. Towns like mine have yet to recover. To this day, three decades later, the jobless rate in Kawerau remains three times higher than the national average.

Many of the men and women laid off in the late eighties never worked again; in fact, many of the whānau I know have endured three generations of unemployment.

As unemployment rose, and hope for the future receded, things went haywire.

As we left the fourth form, the numbers in our class dropped dramatically. But the boys weren’t ending up at the mill. Many, way too many, went to borstal instead. In fact, by the time I left the fifth form, only five boys from my year managed to avoid doing a stint. Steal a bike? Off to borstal. Get into a fight? Off you go.

From borstal, most went to adult prison, doing short stints for burglary or breaking and entering.

As I reflect on my schoolmates, and the guys who ended up behind bars, I can see three distinct categories.

The first, and by far the smallest, cohort were genuinely antisocial kids who grew into antisocial adults who have no one to blame but themselves.

The second were kids from homes rendered so broken, so dysfunctional, by poverty and hopelessness that prison almost came as respite.

Finally, there were kids who, in retrospect, were wrestling with learning, behavioural or psychological issues we had little means to recognise, let alone address, in the eighties. Mental health services weren’t just scarce; I doubt we would have understood what the phrase meant. The criminal justice system was a hammer and kids like these were nails. Punishment was the only paradigm.

Cycling in and out of prison, many of my old classmates became so institutionalised, it became the only place where they knew how to function.

In light of the Government’s eye-popping (not to mention welcome and overdue) rollout of major reforms last week – in health and local government – it’s perhaps unsurprising the first significant steps on prison reform attracted modest attention when Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis announced them on Friday. But the launch of Māori Pathways at Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison was nonetheless welcome news.

The initiatives include a kaupapa Māori approach to prisoner rehabilitation called Tēnei Au, which will assist Māori men in high-security prisons. Prisoners aged 30 and under will take priority as the Government says those men have the highest recidivism rates.

Davis said that reducing the prison population overall, and tackling the grotesque over-representation of Māori in particular, is “a top priority”. So it should be.

We’re quick to shake our head at injustice elsewhere, especially in the United States of late, but in terms of incarceration rates, Māori are considerably worse off than blacks in America. Despite making up a similar share of the overall population, one in every three US inmates is African-American, compared to New Zealand, where fully half are Māori. Our lives matter here, too.

It was fitting that Ngāti Kahungunu chief executive Chrissie Hape shared the stage with Davis in Hawke’s Bay. To be successful, any effort at prison reform must have iwi, hapū and whānau at the heart.

Taken together with Andrew Little and Peeni Henare’s health reforms, the Māori Pathways programme signals an encouraging mindset shift on the part of the Crown. It envisages a role for mana whenua far beyond the merely symbolic and ceremonial. It was developed by Māori experts in tikanga and trauma-informed care, and Ngāti Kahungunu will deliver the services.

On both sides of politics, our approach to law and order has for too long been driven by populist impulses over clear-headed, evidence-based policies. With last week’s announcement, Labour at least has indicated a willingness to chart a different course.

As for National, the signs are less encouraging. By giving the Corrections and Police portfolios to one of their most socially conservative MPs, Simeon Brown, it’s clear the party continues to care more about political than policy gains.

Not a single word uttered by Brown suggests he even recognises – or cares – about system-wide failures in justice and corrections. He seems to think we just haven’t been punitive or reactionary enough – seemingly oblivious to the fact doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, is better known as a definition of insanity than as a basis for wise public policy.

I dedicate this article to my old school mates. For many, I wish they’d had better lives – they deserved better. Here’s to a better future for us all.

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