Guest Post: Maori prisons are not the answer

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prisons are not the answer

Lately Uncle Tom Cobley and all have opined about the causes of the high rate of Maori criminal recidivism. The Waitangi Tribunal says it’s the government’s fault. The Maori Party says it’s down to “institutional racism”, and of course, a lack of funding – of their pet causes of course. The Labour Party says  it’s all  the fault of the Corrections Department, which is “failing Maori”. The latest brilliant idea is dedicated Maori  prisons run on Maori lines. If they come to pass they will be a dismal failure, just like all the other ideas promoted or at least endorsed by Kim Workman, former head of prisons, who resigned in disgrace after his pet project He Ara Hou failed spectacularly in the 1990’s.

Why am I so confident in my pessimism?  For many reasons. Firstly, the proposal is that a Maori prison would essentially be an entire prison run the same way as the Maori focus units which already exist in prisons.  Such units are – apparently – run according to tikanga Maori, and embracing “Maori values”, whatever they might be ( I don’t know – I am not a Maori… Not even a 1/64th one). The big problem is that not only are Maori focus units ineffective, but the recidivism rate among Maori graduates of may in fact be  HIGHER than the prison population as a whole.

Many readers will, quite understandably, ask for evidence for that claim. My response is that  winkling clear answers  out of Corrections and Justice is proving very difficult, with obfuscation and dissembling regarding my OIA requests. But according to a number of sources within the prison and justice  systems, that is the reality: those who spend time in Maori focus units before release  tend to reoffend at a higher rate than those who have served their sentences in the general population.

So how did we get to the unarguably lamentable situation where Maori are grossly overrepresented, both in offending rates and in the prison population? Was this always the case due to some defect or trait within the Maori people? The answer to that  of course is a resounding NO. Go back to the period  before the 1960’s and Maori offending rates were LOWER than that of pakeha. It was not until the 1960’s, and the Maori drift away from their  tribal areas to the cities that they began to catch up. It was not until the 1980’s and 90’s that the significant overrepresentation of Maori within the prison population really took off. Why was that?

Firstly let’s deal with and dismiss the old canard of racism, both institutional and otherwise, as an explanation. Sadly, until relatively  recently, New Zealand was in fact a very racist country, although much of that racism was hidden and relatively benign and condescending, rather than the overt segregation and  the violence of beatings and lynchings seen in much of the southern USA.

I am old enough to remember To Let ads which read “No dogs; no Maoris”.  Sadly, I am old enough to remember “jokes” like “What’s black and lives up a tree? A Maori waiting for a state house.” I am old enough to remember cringing when a farmer referred, in his presence, to the  “Maori boy” – a man in his thirties – who had come to do some welding on his cowshed.

None of that would happen today,  when the National Anthem is sung in Maori first, where every school has a kapa haka group, and where there are proudly assertive  “Maori” who are as blond and blue eyed as me. To supposedly be Maori is now fashionable, not something to try to hide, as Winston Peters once did, claiming he was Italian rather than Maori. We are as a country, unarguably much less racist than we were 40, 50, or even  25  years ago.

So what’s changed? For a start, as Greg Newbold has pointed out, a large proportion  of Maori in prisons are gang members or associates, and the majority of gang members are Maori. Dame Tariana Turia has said that gangs are “just another form of whanau” –  what she doesn’t acknowledge  of course is that if your “whanau” is the Mongrel Mob, and  if that’s all you’ve got,  that’s a terrible indictment on those who are your real whanau. And therein, in my view, lies a great part of the answer.

Forty years ago, the typical Maori family lived next door to me,  or up the road,  in the predominantly Maori state housing block I grew up in. Mr Tuhaka – whose daughters are now both university educated professionals – drove earthmoving machinery for the Ministry of Works, and spent his weekends either working in his vege  garden – which took up the entire back section of the house, and sometimes also the front lawn – or making and  checking his eel traps, and drying the contents of them  on the clothesline behind the house. Mrs Tuhaka, like my mother, didn’t work outside the home.

The Tuhakas were unusual only in that they had just two children rather than  the six or  seven that their friends the Te Hau’s had. When the Te Hau’s arrived on a Friday night or Saturday morning, we knew we were in for a sleepless weekend as loud partying would ensue for the duration of their visit. But that was only now and again.

Whether the Te Hau’s had been there or not,  on Monday morning, at 6.30, we would hear Mr Tuhaka’s old V8 being started and left to warm up – this was 1971 – while he had his breakfast and went off to work. At 8.15 or so the  Tuhaka girls would emerge, clothes spotlessly clean and frankly, dressed a little better than we were, and we would all go off to school.

What is the typical Maori family now? Sadly, I suspect it  is a solo mother and her latest “partner”, and half a dozen kids, none of them his biological children. No-one in the household  will work because the state has generously not only supported but arguably encouraged their lifestyle with easily obtained benefits and grants. There will be excessive alcohol and drug use, and the partying will be ubiquitous, rather than now and again, as when the Te Hau’s came to visit our neighbours.

There will be little parental control of or even interest in the kids. There will probably be violence, either visited upon the kids, the mother, or both.  Again as Greg Newbold has pointed out, for every bashed to death Maori child like Moko Rangitoheriri and James Whakaruru, there will be 100  kids who survive the violence to  become the gang members and criminals of tomorrow. Their “values” will be violence as a solution to problems, callousness, cruelty, and lack of respect for societal norms, because that is all they have known. By time Corrections gets hold of them it is far too late to change anything. And herein lies the answer to the problem of Maori recidivism: it has nothing to do with ‘failings’ in the corrections system, the problem lies with failings within the families of modern Maori.

I hasten to add that there are many exceptions to this terrible parody of a whanau. My good friend Northland Wahine, a regular contributor here, lives with her youngest son and her sister, and whatever foster children Wahine has generously taken in from time to time. As I write this, she tells me the foster kids are waiting forlornly for their parents to come and pick them up, while the parents make excuses for why they cannot have them on Mother’s Day.

Both of the  adults at Wahine’s place have jobs. All the children in the house go to school. The children all attend after school activities and play sport on the weekends. Wahine’s son is a delightful well mannered and intelligent  boy whose father plays a big part in his life.  I can say with great confidence that HE will neither end up bashed to death nor will he ever become  a gang member.

So what is the answer to Maori offending, and their dreadful overrepresentation in prisons? The answer lies in the atrocious conditions in which many young Maori spend their early lives – in a Once were Warriors environment, corrupted by chronic neglect, abuse, violence and unemployed, drug-addled, drunken role models. Not all young Maori experience these conditions, but a shockingly large proportion of them do. As Newbold demonstrates in his recent book “Crime, Law and Justice in New Zealand”, the results are clearly visible: in the appalling number of Maori children admitted to hospital with adult-inflicted injuries, or killed by adults before they reach the age of 14.  The only real answers can come from Maori themselves: Maori  offending and  recidivism is a Maori problem, and perhaps only they can fix it.  

One thing is for sure: the problem will not be solved by blaming it on the corrections system and by repeated bleating that the government isn’t doing enough. By the time the criminals – Maori or otherwise –  reach adult prison it is too late to do anything very much, except wait until the offending years have passed, usually by age 45 or so. The answer lies way earlier, in childhood, but changing the future of Maori children  requires making some very hard and very unpopular decisions. Decisions no government is likely to make any time soon.

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