Over half of all prisoners in New Zealand are Māori – how did it come to this? And what can be done about it? Frank Film investigates

In 1989, Kim Workman was the first Māori 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 Māori incarceration since European settlement and include an extended interview with Workman to better understand how Māori have become one of the most incarcerated, indigenous people in the world.

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

Tā Kim, knighted for his services to prisoner welfare and the justice system, explains that prior to European settlement Māori 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 Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, says that under English rule the number of incarcerated Māori 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 Māori on remand and, as a result, a rise in gang recruitment behind the wire, with 70 percent of imprisoned Māori 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 Māori rates of imprisonment.

Clark, who immigrated from England a decade ago, admits he’s “not Māori 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” whānau-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 Tā Kim, one major hurdle remains, “It’s still maintaining control of the process,” he says. “What we want to see is a Māori-led, tikanga Māori process which is based on Māori thinking and, while it might be available for Pākehā, it’s focused on Māori and Māori beliefs.”

Frank Film also visits Christchurch Women’s Prison where Lesley Herbert is leading the department’s Mana Wahine programme; and talks with a Māori 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.

If you want to see the full interview with Sir Kim Workman you can watch it in the video player below.

*Made with the support of NZ On Air*

Jendy Harper is a freelance journalist and writer based in Christchurch.

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