Labour floats “Māori-run” prison idea

Last week, Labour’s corrections spokesman Kelvin Davis mentioned an idea to turn the existing Ngawha prison in Northland to one run sole on Maori values:

"A prison based on Māori values, not exclusively for Māori but for anybody, but they'll know that the values that the prison will be run under will be based along Māori lines.”

However, Labour leader Andrew Little stopped short of declaring the idea official policy, instead saying that it was an “idea” that exemplified Labour’s commitment to “look differently” at managing corrections.

On cue, NZ First leader Winston Peters gave his thoughts: "What's next? All-Māori criminal courts? An all-Māori police force?"

Meanwhile, Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell said his party was “flattered” that Labour was floating the idea. Flavell says a kaupapa Māori approach to corrections is Maori Party policy.

Half of Ngawha Prison’s inmates are Maori. As of January, Maori make up only 14.6 percent of New Zealand’s population, but 51 percent of our prison population.

Emilie Rākete of the prison advocate group No Pride In Prisons says the idea is “simply ridiculous”.

“People are not in prison just because they are alienated from Māori culture,” says Rākete. “People are in prison because economic racism has forced generations of Māori into poverty, producing misery in our communities.”

While some National Party MPs have warmed to the idea of a Maori prisoner, Prime Minister Bill English says,

"It's incorporated into our prisons where appropriate, we just don't see the point of trying to designate a prison as a Māori prison and other prisons as non-Māori because there's going to be Māori in all our prisons because there are too many of them."



Lacking some sort of reversal of colonial structures by the prison abolitionists at No Pride In Prisons, I’m going to have to agree with the PM on this one.

We don’t need a separate prison system. Yes, we have varying welfare and education guidelines for Maori, but that last thing we need is spatial segregation anywhere. There’s no total reversal of colonialism. It’s one thing to celebrate Maori values and have them reverberate throughout our prison system. It’s another to start erecting walls.

Vividly demarcating (with concrete) where one culture ends and another stops is not productive; it does not produce new futures and sensibilities that we’ll need to think past a Pakeha-Māori binary.

Somethings got to give, the prison statistics show the cycle hasn’t been broken. I’m not advocating a Don Brashian “one-rule-for-all” change and I’m not calling for old school “colour-blind” homogenised assimilation. There just seems to be a permeating logic at play here, where the thinking is that actual segregation (of bodies and values) is required.

Do we really want to divide the country up into (1) the Pakeha who have “family values” but no “heritage” and (2) the Maori who need a hypodermic needle of value-juice that will somehow disappear their socioeconomic position?       

Emilie Rākete reminds us of the situation ex-prisoners find themselves in:

“It is illegal to discriminate against people seeking employment or housing because they are Māori, but it is not illegal to discriminate against ex-prisoners. The mass incarceration of Māori upholds economic racism. A so-called “Māori prison” would be no different.”

If we’ve decided that Maori inmates are lacking “culture” and “heritage” then we need to incorporate Maori values into all prisons – a box I’m sure is already being ticked to some degree through the Corrections Department’s ‘tikanga-based programmes’. Lowering (re)offending rates starts outside of prison, in the communities that were robbed of opportunity over the past 150 odd years.

An issue in prison we could work on is the poor conditions raised in the recent Human Rights Commission report on the use of seclusion and restraint practices in the country’s prison system. The report concluded that some practices were contrary to international law.

In the independent report, University of Oxford criminologist Dr. Sharon Shalev highlighted the disproportionate use of seclusion and restraint on Maori inmates. The segregation is already taking place, as Shalev writes,

“Last year, there were 16,370 recorded instances of segregation in prisons alone. As many as 62 per cent of those segregated were Maori or Pacific Islanders.”

Even outside of prison, Shalev says vulnerable children in Care and Protection residences are locked in rooms resembling prison cells. No amount of “culture” and “values” is going to stop the rising rates of Maori inmates without changes in their socioeconomic situation and without ending these sorts of tortuous techniques they and their communities are subjected to. 

This article first appeared in Issue 11, 2017.
Posted 11:05am Sunday 14th May 2017 by George Elliott.