This guest blog post is by Kendra Cox (Te Ure o Uenukukōpako, Te Whakatōhea, Tūhoe, Ngāti Porou), National Advocacy Co-Coordinator for People Against Prisons Aotearoa and BSW (Hons) student at the University of Auckland.
A fortnight ago, the Department of Corrections proudly released their new Māori strategy, Hōkai Rangi. The strategy was created with the aspiration to reduce the proportion of Māori in prison from the current 52% to 16%, reflecting the make-up of the general population. Corrections aims to do this by focusing on six key domains outlined in the report: partnership between the Crown and Māori; humanising and healing; involvement of whānau; incorporating te ao Māori; supporting whakapapa and relational identity; and participation in society on release. With Hōkai Rangi, Corrections rightly identifies that the current prison system is failing in its supposedly rehabilitative and reintegrative aims. The strategy notes that reimprisonment rates are unacceptably high: 35% of tauiwi people return to prison within two years of release, and this is much higher for Māori at around 50%. However, the plans presented by this strategy, which centre largely around supporting whānau connection and tikanga Māori-based rehabilitation, are totally incapable of achieving the desired outcome.
Hōkai Rangi has followed the mistaken logic that not being able to speak Māori and not feeling at home with the culture of your tūpuna are the primary drivers of Māori imprisonment. Māori are not in prison because they can’t get up on the pae and whaikōrero. They aren’t locked up because they don’t know the tikanga and kawa of their marae. Māori are in prison because the economic structure of Aotearoa is built on the violent dispossession of the land and resources of their tupuna: because our justice system is undeniably racist. Because we have completely insufficient public services across housing, health, and welfare. Because twelve year olds with backgrounds of deprivation are excluded from school and have few options for education. Because people who have been hurt don’t receive the support they need to heal and they hurt others.
Workman and McIntosh (2013) argue that the boom in prison populations here and globally is directly tied to the damage neoliberal capitalism has wrought on the dispossessed and marginalised. They assert that:
‘The communities that most offenders come from have experienced a reduction in primary healthcare services, increased evictions from and ineligibility for social housing, increased levels of unemployment, a decline in the level of welfare support, the introduction of “workfare”, and increased pressure to “behave” without any commensurate provision of support.’ (p.126)
Neoliberal capitalism has crushed our welfare system and squeezed public health and housing to bursting. People receiving a benefit simply do not have enough money to cover everything they need to live a decent life. Just last month, our waitlist for public housing topped 12,000 households and whānau waiting for a home they can afford. Mental health and addiction support is either incapable of meeting need, or inaccessible for many unless they present as an acute risk. We have one of the most unequal education systems in the wealthy world. Māori – with higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of mental distress and addiction, higher rates of family violence, and lower educational attainment – are of course more likely to be incarcerated when we understand that imprisonment is not the result of poor life choices, but is unequivocally tied to the political, social, and economic history of Aotearoa.
In a response to an Official Information Act request in 2017, Corrections stated that only 13% of people in prison had paid income tax in the month before being incarcerated. This means only one in eight people were legally employed (or self-employed) before going to prison. At the other end of the system, all of the 16,000 people who are released from a custodial prison sentence every year are prohibited from having their criminal record sealed under the Criminal Records (Clean Slate) Act 2004. The common practice of pre-employment screening out of all ex-prisoners means that most are barred from gaining work with a majority of employers. And just in case the connection between employment discrimination against ex-prisoners and racism wasn’t already clear, in 2011 Workman estimated that 40% of Māori men had been in prison. To live up to the claim in Hōkai Rangi that Corrections plan to support people to reintegrate into society on release by building relationships with employers, Corrections would need to do so with hundreds, or even thousands of organisations. At their 2018 rate of transitioning around 60 people a month into employment through their This Way for Work scheme, they have a hell of a long way to go. Unsurprisingly, post-prison benefit and housing support has also been described as woefully inadequate by ex-prisoners (Johnston, 2016).
And yes, some Māori are in prison because they have been structurally denied (for generations) a meaningful connection to the culture and language of their ancestors. Though Hōkai Rangi places such an emphasis around the importance of reo and tikanga, it does not once mention the responsibility of the Crown, including our justice system, in colonisation. Disconnection from culture, language, and whakapapa started with forcing Māori from their haukāinga. It continues with incarcerating generations of whānau. Well before the release of this strategy, the marginal presence of tikanga and reo-based programs led some criminologists, justice observers, and even Corrections themselves, to claim that national justice policy is shaped by Māori values and knowledge (Tauri & Webb, 2012). Tauri and Webb (2012) argue that this espoused ‘indigenisation’ of the justice system has been defined and created wholly by Corrections. The supposedly indigenous-led rehabilitation programs and bicultural policy are ‘more accurately described as neo-colonial artefacts developed by policy makers and members of the academy’, which ‘are then utilised primarily to satisfy the policy requirements of ministers and their agencies’ (p. 9).
In a recent Spinoff article, Rākete compared the lofty aims of Hōkai Rangi with the disturbing Ombudsman report of Ngawha prison, where they found prisoners had been forced to urinate and defecate in the exercise yard. Rākete points out that the prison purpose-built for incarcerating the uri of Northern iwi, the prison that aimed to rehabilitate Māori by connecting hapū inside and out and operating with a kaupapa Māori lens, a prison built on wāhi tapu, has failed Māori. And how could it do anything else? Even if every prison in Aotearoa changed overnight to allow more whānau access, more tikanga Māori rehabilitative programs, and better ‘Crown-Māori relations’, it is still only one part of a justice system that is built on colonisation, that is systematically racist, and that is punitively-focused from start to finish.
Mikaere (2011) and Jackson (1988) both point to utu as one of the fundamental principles of tikanga Māori across all hapū; a principle that is ignored in the Western criminal justice system. How can we possibly have a kaupapa Māori approach in prisons while racist policing and sentencing remains, while Māori approaches to justice and relationships are side-lined? How can we possibly have a kaupapa Māori approach in prisons while the political economic structure of Aotearoa reproduces unjust and unequal outcomes in health, housing, and education, divided by class and ethnicity?
If Hōkai Rangi was part of a wider program of decarceration, of mass public housing, of accessible wrap-around healthcare, and of guaranteed liveable income for everyone, it would be harder to argue with. If Hōkai Rangi laid out a plan for Māori to really reshape the justice system, then it would be harder to poke holes in its supposedly kaupapa Māori approach. There is no doubt that knowing where you come from, knowing who your people are, is deeply important to many Māori. Most Māori, and our Polynesian cuzzies, make sense of ourselves through our collective identity – through our whānau, our tūpuna, our mokopuna, the land and waters that we come from. It should be the right of every Māori person, in every instance, to receive support and care that is shaped by Māori ways of understanding the world and the people in it.
But cultural solutions that are built by and for the Crown, that are created to respond to material problems that are the result of two hundred years of capitalist exploitation either imposed or facilitated by the Crown, are totally incapable of solving the problem of Māori mass incarceration. Unless these kaupapa Māori services are given the power to restructure our political economic system, to rebuild communities hammered by generations of marginalisation and deprivation, then this problem will remain—ake tonu atu.
Image Credit: John Darroch
Johnston, A. (2016). Beyond the prison gate: Reoffending and reintegration in Aotearoa New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: The Salvation Army. Retrieved from https://www.salvationarmy.org.nz/sites/default/files/uploads/20161207spputsa-prison-gate-2016_report.pdf
Mikaere, A. (2011). Are we all New Zealanders now? A Māori response to the Pākehā quest for Indigeneity. In A. Mikaere (ed.) He rukuruku whakaaro: Colonising myths, Māori realities. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia Publishers.
Jackson, M. (1988). The Māori and the criminal justice system: He Whaipaanga Hou—A new perspective: Part 2. Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Justice Policy and Research Division.
Tauri, J., & Webb, R. (2012). A critical appraisal of responses to Māori offending. The international indigenous policy journal, 3(4), 1-21. Doi: 10.18584/iipj.2012.3.4.5.
Workman, K. (2011). Redemption denied: Aspects of over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system. Paper presented at Justice in the Round Conference. Wellington, New Zealand.
Workman, K., & McIntosh, T. (2013).‘Crime, imprisonment and poverty. In M. Rashbrooke (Ed.), Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, 120-131. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books.