"I think there are a lot of people in prisons or youth justice residences who just shouldn’t be there. I also think there are some people who can’t be anywhere else," says Ben Brown. Photo: RNZ/Diego Opatowski

A poet from Lyttelton will deliver a powerful speech on youth justice in New Zealand

“I think there are a lot of people in prisons who just shouldn’t be there,” says Ben Brown. “I also think there are some people who can’t be anywhere else.”

Lyttelton poet Brown (Ngāti Māhuta, Ngāti Koroki, Ngāti Pāoa) will talk about youth justice in a speech today at the National Library in Wellington, where he’ll deliver the 2020 Read NZ Te Pou Muramura Pānui (formerly the Book Council Lecture).

In early 2020, Brown taught a writing workshop at Te Puna Wai ō Tuhinapo, the Oranga Tamariki Youth Justice Residence facility at Rolleston near Christchurch. The workshop was part of Writers in Youth Justice, one of Read NZ’s Writers in Communities programmes.

The result is an anthology of poetry by “residents” (the polite term for inmates) who took part. How Did I Get Here?, edited by Brown, has been published by The Cuba Press.

Brown’s speech is titled, ‘If nobody listens, then no one will know’.

He says, “The comes from one of the residents at Te Punawai. It’s a line from the first piece he wrote in the writing workshop on day one. It’s a challenge by a young man, a kid really. It’s also a plea I think. He knew he screwed up. He also knows the disadvantages in life he’s faced aren’t all down to him. And that’s a fact. I think he wants us to understand that, like he’s trying to. But, if nobody listens…

“To me, he was a kid who couldn’t find the right kind of opportunity and couldn’t quite figure out why.

“I think there are a lot of people in prisons or youth justice residences who just shouldn’t be there. I also think there are some people who can’t be anywhere else. In New Zealand we live in a system where eventually every incarcerated offender, with the exception of a literal handful of them, will be released back into society again. The question then becomes, ‘What sort of individual are we allowing back into society?’ Will they be angry, resentful, without life skills, employment skills, basic education, reintegration and coping strategies, support structures, etc… Will they have hope? Do they deserve hope?

“The answer to that has a lot to do with the nature of their incarceration and the system that administers it. If you think prison is all about punishment and society getting its pound of flesh: fill your boots but I’m not sure what that achieves in the long run. It doesn’t seem to deter.

“Absolutely in some circumstances a criminal has to be taken out of circulation, if only to give society some respite, but if you’re going to let them out again, you’d hope they’re in a better place or someone else will become a victim.

“Bigger jails and longer sentences seem to me untenable. Poverty and inequality seem to be the big ones. Fix that, you’ll go some way towards fixing the flow on effects. We haven’t managed it yet in several thousand years of trying but I’m an optimist.

“When I went out to conduct these writing workshops at Te Punawai I thought I’d leave my judgements at the door except for one: that all of them will have a story. The biggest thing I wanted to share with them is that story matters. Story is the shape of everything. Story is how we learn, it’s how we lie, it’s how we communicate and inform. These kids remind me of all that.

“I just think artists are constantly asking the question of what it is to be human. We’re navel gazers at heart. We want to know where we fit in the puzzle. I think that’s what art is – it’s the question. It’s not objective. It’s emotional, primal even. Sometimes it’s irrational, angry, non-sensical. Sometimes it’s exquisitely beautiful. Sometimes art accuses. Sometimes it acquiesces. Sometimes it falls on its face, or its sword, but somewhere in it is the question of what it means to be human. I could think of worse things to encourage the residents to think about.”

Ben Brown’s speech, or panui, can be downloaded from the Read NZ site tomorrow (November 19). The poetry anthology How Did I Get Here? (Cuba Press, $25) is available from selected bookstores or directly from the publisher. 


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