Aaron Smale asks how many more Māori men in jail and in Parliament we have to have before something changes in our prison population

We’re living in historic days folks. 

We’ve got more Māori men in top positions across not only Government but in Opposition as well. When Jacinda Ardern goes on maternity leave we’ll have an (acting) Prime Minister and an Opposition leader, Simon Bridges, who are both Māori.  

Then you’ve got Shane Jones, Ron Mark, Kelvin Davis, Willie Jackson, Adrian Rurawhe, Peeni Henare, Rino Tirikatene, Shane Reti, Tamati Coffey and now Daniel Bidois.  

Sir Āpirana Ngata and the Māori Battalion soldiers he recruited to fight for not only the empire but to prove they were worthy of equality of citizenship must be looking on in wonder.  

Or disgust.

Because I’m pretty sure those uncles of mine and their mates in C Company didn’t lay their lives on the line so their mokopuna could fill our jails. 

Right at this notable moment when numbers of Māori men are rising in Parliament, they’re also breaking records on incarceration.  

You’d think an increase in Māori men in Parliament would see reduction in their cousins getting banged up. But no. As the prison muster balloons, Peters killed one small way to reduce the churn by repealing the three strikes law.  Apparently there will be a review of the whole criminal justice system, but that is kicking the can down the road. Again. Which now makes it inevitable that another jail (sorry, corrections facility) will need to be built while we wait for the bureaucrats to rewrite all the reports they’ve written over the last 30 years.

New Zealand First will growl that they’re defending the masses from the hordes of criminals crawling through your windows like cockroaches in February. Memo to Winston: you’re not representing the blue rinse brigade in Tauranga anymore. Simon Bridges has taken over that mantle.  

You’d think with more Māori men in Parliament that their tribal kin further down that ladder would get a break.

Or at least he’s trying to. It’s hard competing for the media slot where you spook the white middle class about crime when you’ve got Stuart Nash banging on about cutting heads of snakes.   

How many of these male Māori MPs are standing up for their fellow Māori men with any enthusiasm? Why aren’t they joining forces across party lines and addressing the significant disadvantages that blight Māori boys and men?  Or have they pulled the ladder up behind them and are too busy trying to play the safe Māori?

You’d think with more Māori men in Parliament that their tribal kin further down that ladder would get a break. Or even some empathy and understanding. But no. The numbers of Māori men going to jail will increase while other Māori men will be dining daily at Bellamy’s. 

The political ping pong that goes on about how prisons aren’t working versus how we should be harder on crime is becoming tedious. Here’s a news flash. Prisons are working. They’re designed to lock people up as punishment.  

But that’s all they’re designed to do. They’re not designed to stop people going back in. They’re not designed to prevent them from causing harm in the first place by creating opportunity. 

Nor are they designed to treat mental health – they aggravate mental illness.

The person who ends up in jail may have made a choice that led to that consequence. But there were a whole lot of other people who failed him or her along the path to that decision. 

Nor is prison a deterrent. As unpleasant as prisons are, for many individuals the outside world is more terrifying and difficult to negotiate than the mundane grind of jail life. There is a pecking order in prisons that they can climb through brutality and reputation. Which is hardly teaching them how to be better citizens on release. Outside the wire they are at the bottom with little hope of getting onto even the bottom rung of a ladder that was always out of their reach.

Peters and other Māori men in Parliament are prepared to turn a blind eye to that failure. If it’s not a blind eye, it’s at least the eye of someone who forget to put their contact lenses in.

Politicians love to talk about being tough on crime, but they have little to say about preventing crime, which would actually benefit victims more. It would benefit victims more because there’d be fewer of them. We wouldn’t be talking about victims after the fact.  

That would require talking about more complex problems, like fixing an abysmal education system; housing; a welfare system that has no accountability and yet continues to create harm where it is supposed to be preventing it; and the self-confessed racism of the police and justice system. 

Seventy percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate. This figure was mentioned at the Waitangi Tribunal hearing into prisons. No one batted an eyelid or passed comment. No one asked if the Department of Corrections had sent a memo to the Minister of Education and asked them to stop sending kids down the pipeline to jail.

No one seems to think it significant that around 2000 Māori boys will walk out of their school gates for the last time this year without any qualification. When was the last time Peters or any other Māori male politician in the house got exercised about that scandal?   

In a conversation with Children’s Commissioner and former head Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft he commented on the court’s most regular faces. “We know who they are. There’s about 2000 of them.” They’ll graduate from there and move on to the crime universities of Rimutaka and Paremoremo.

Peters is more fixated on chasing around Wellington to find who leaked his pension details than finding who is responsible for these facts.  

If he’s so hurt by the breach of his privacy, maybe he should a try a cavity search like the one inmates get welcomed with on their entry into jail. Or double-bunking with someone who hasn’t shared any female company for the last 10 years. 

The old line that politicians trot out about protecting the community is disingenuous. The communities that suffer the most from crime are the same communities the criminals live in, not the white middle-class suburbs that the politician is dog-whistling to. And the dog-whistling is even more pathetic when the one blowing the tune is a Māori trying to hold the attention of a white audience. It’s a kind of cowardice masquerading as bravery. The cowardice is that they won’t stand up for their own because they’re too busy trying to please and appease Pākehā voters, while deflecting sniping from the Opposition leader. Who is Māori.

Peters has often ranted and raved about separatism. And yet he is quite happy to encourage separatism developing along racial lines when it comes to the prison population. On that front – and increasingly on others – Māori are separate and unequal. He has said nothing significant about how he intends to reduce the numbers heading to prison, nor how to reduce the reoffending of those coming out.  He thinks a high prison number is a success. It’s a failure. A moral and fiscal one (a Pākehā said that. He was the last Prime Minister).

And yet Peters and other Māori men in Parliament are prepared to turn a blind eye to that failure. If it’s not a blind eye, it’s at least the eye of someone who forget to put their contact lenses in.

I suppose there’s a kind of symmetry to it all though. It costs about the same amount of taxpayer money per year to house a Māori man in Parliament as it does to incarcerate a Māori man in jail.  

It’s hard to know which one is costing us all more and causing more harm in the long term. And you have to wonder how many more Māori men in jail and in Parliament we have to have before something changes.

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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