Why does New Zealand imprison so many Maori?


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Over half of all prisoners in New Zealand are Maori - how did it come to this? And what can be done about it?

In 1989, Kim Workman was the first Maori to be appointed operational head of New Zealand prisons but, today, the prison reformist believes the institutions should be abolished.

Frank Film’s latest two episodes in its Changing South series, put the spotlight on the growth of Maori incarceration since European settlement and include an extended interview with Workman to better understand how Maori have become one of the most incarcerated, indigenous people in the world.

Currently, Maori make up 52% of the prison population but only 16% of New Zealand’s total population.

Ta Kim, knighted for his services to prisoner welfare and the justice system, explains that prior to European settlement Maori used a restorative justice process, based on punishment, compensation or utu, and with a view to “restoring a community to a place of peace and balance.”

Workman, who affiliates to Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, says that under English rule the number of incarcerated Maori climbed steadily over the 20th century. He claims this was a result of socio-economic factors and systemic bias.

More recently, he believes the Bail Amendment Act, which came into effect in 2013, has resulted in more Maori on remand and, as a result, a rise in gang recruitment behind the wire, with 70% of imprisoned Maori having gang connections.

On a visit to Christchurch Men’s Prison, Frank Film meets southern regional commissioner Ben Clark who explains the Department of Corrections’ new strategy, Hokai Rangi, implemented with a desire to turn the tide on growing Maori rates of imprisonment.

Clark, who immigrated from England a decade ago, admits he’s “not Maori and his face doesn’t represent the main demographic in our prisons” but he believes in what Hokai Rangi represents and is trying to achieve, in delivering a more “humanising and healing” whanau based service. “We need to work in better with family .. they’re going to be released into the community, it's not good if we just set them up to fall over.”

For Ta Kim, one major hurdle remains, “it’s still maintaining control of the process,” he says. “What we want to see is a Maori-led, tikanga Maori process which is based on Maori thinking and, while it might be available for pakeha, it’s focused on Maori and Maori beliefs.”

Frank Film also visits Christchurch Women's Prison where Lesley Herbert is leading the department’s Mana Wahine programme; and talks with a Maori repeat offender who’s been in and out of jail most of his life but is determined that this will be his last stint behind the wire.

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Ref: 1/1-017875-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/29944452
Ref: E-395-037. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23010193
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  /photograph/36780/prison-cell-at-arohata-1983
Alexander Turnbull LibraryReference: C-051-031
Sam Stuart, 'The interior of a Maori pa in the olden time', 1885, Oil on canvas, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Mrs Sam Stuart, 1923