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Awatea Mita, in this still from the Spinoff-Storybox series Aren’t Can’t Don’t. Photo: Ness Patea
Awatea Mita, in this still from the Spinoff-Storybox series Aren’t Can’t Don’t. Photo: Ness Patea

OPINIONĀteaJuly 3, 2020

These are the women’s stories at the heart of a crisis in criminal justice

Awatea Mita, in this still from the Spinoff-Storybox series Aren’t Can’t Don’t. Photo: Ness Patea
Awatea Mita, in this still from the Spinoff-Storybox series Aren’t Can’t Don’t. Photo: Ness Patea

We should be unanimously outraged that in seven short years the number of Māori women on remand has doubled, in part thanks to a pernicious reform. What will you do about it, asks Awatea Mita.

In December this year, it will be six years since I was released from prison. Since gaining my freedom I have a double BA in Psychology and Criminology. Currently, I’m a Criminology Honours student and work part-time at Restorative Practices Aotearoa. Most people who meet me today can’t believe I was a meth addict or had been in prison; I only spent 22 months in prison. Despite the progress I’ve made, I’m still disturbed by the stories of the women I met. I wanted to share my memories to bring the statistics to life and humanise the numbers.

There were nights I didn’t have a blanket; it took two days to get one. I didn’t have proper fitting bras. I had some that my brother brought me, and others being held by prison property, but the prison staff gave them to someone who was being released. She took them too! They tried to pass on her property to me. I had to lay a complaint. The solution the prison came up with was for me to access a couple of bras through the charity that supplied bras to women in prison. I didn’t think that was fair because the prison made a mistake and the prison was responsible for fixing it. I did not want to take the charity bras because it meant there would be a couple less bras for someone else who needed them.

I got lucky at one point. An old kuia left a couple behind for me. She and her daughter were there for benefit fraud. There were a few older Māori women who collected a benefit for a grandchild not in their care to help make ends meet. I could not help but feel they did not belong there. A much smaller number of white-collar criminals had cases that involved so much more money, in some instances millions of dollars. They had not been struggling financially. Anyway, there was no underwire in the bras that the kuia left behind for me, but it was better than nothing. These seemed like big problems at the time, however they would become the least of my worries.

Image: Getty

While I was on remand intrusive, illegal internal searches were being carried out on the women. They received little compensation for the violation of their bodies; the violation of Māori women’s bodies has almost become an expectation rather than an exception. I was on remand for six weeks before I was sentenced to prison. If that were today, I could easily be waiting for double that amount of time, maybe longer.

It was hard enough for me when my 13-year-old son accidentally drowned 11 months into my sentence. On the grief and loss course Kara told us how she could not get over the loss of her young teenage daughter, Aroha, who committed suicide. Aroha and her siblings were placed in state care and it was her younger sister who found her. When it was finally revealed that their father was innocent of the crimes he was accused of, the rest of the children were returned to him.

Aroha’s death was preventable. The state had a “duty of care”, but the state did not care enough to follow their own procedures. If they had, the death of a young teenage girl may have been prevented. Aroha was missing her parents, experiencing sexual violation while in state care and subsequently ended her short life. Kara had a permanent injury to contend with in her day-to-day life. Even though I knew, rationally, I shouldn’t compare, I felt I was more fortunate than Kara.

I remember the day Mere broke the prison rules just to talk to me. I had moved to a different unit. People in different units were not allowed to speak to each other. She was crying because she had received the news that her 23-year-old son had died in a car accident. She was grief-stricken and powerless. Mere had been working on recovery from addiction. At that moment, all she wanted was to get out of prison and drink and just give up on recovery. She managed to wipe her tears away before we were warned that we were not supposed to be talking. I hoped I managed to help her feel better that day. She needed care and treatment, not a jail sentence.

Truth be told, I was barely coping with my own loss. I felt a tremendous pressure to pretend I was OK so I could progress through the prison system to self-care and release-to-work. There were so many nights I cried silent tears into my pillow mourning the loss of my son.

We watched Georgina dying of cancer, slipping away a little more each day. She left the prison to go to palliative care and died a few days later. The closer she came to death, the harder it was to watch her life wasting away in the prison from a terminal illness. It was a clear illustration that there was precious little compassion in that soulless place.

I was upset when I heard the news of my cell mate, Tina. She had committed suicide after she went back to Christchurch Women’s Prison. She had been on release but had to return to prison. Shortly thereafter she took her own life. When we shared a cell, she was always trying to get drugs and use drugs. Without going into details, she was often successful. She had participated in the robbery of a couple of chemists and stolen a couple of cars. I still do not think those crimes should have resulted in Tina taking her life in prison.

I remember Shayly, whose young teenage son had become involved in a murder. She approached me with a look of sadness and bewilderment. Shayly was such a proud woman. She asked me, almost pleaded with me, “What can I do?”. Shayly had pleaded guilty to charges she was not guilty of, to keep her man from doing more time. That was a familiar story within those concrete walls.

I share the stories of these women, not for mere sympathy but to honour them, in the hope that you will be moved to demand action for change. Through their stories, I want you to truly understand the truth behind the words that “poverty deserves compassion not punishment, addiction needs treatment, not a jail sentence, mental health issues require care, not a cage”.

People might say, “well these are extreme cases”. So, did I just happen to be in prison at the same time as all of these extreme cases, or are there Māori women inside our prisons now who are not being heard, who are voiceless and still waiting for the promise of change? Telling our stories to help grow people’s awareness and understanding is the only way I can make sense of these tragedies. I do not want these stories of heartbreak to be the stories of my nieces and granddaughters. These experiences had such a profound effect on me that I am determined to devote the rest of my life pursuing transformational change.

Black Lives Matter has raised awareness worldwide about biased policing, along with institutional and systemic racism. Despite this, we have yet to see a serious reckoning of the criminal justice system, and a reflection of the progress in our country. If there was, we would be unanimously outraged that in seven short years the number of Māori women on remand has doubled. We hear a lot of statistics like this and there has been little change, except the worsening of circumstances and experiences for Māori women.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust lobbied for the Bail Amendment Act 2013 and are unmoved by the detrimental outcomes for Māori women. The advisers to the National government at the time estimated the bill would increase people on remand by a maximum of 60. We are now on course for more people to be imprisoned on remand then sentenced for a crime. We need to repeal the Bail Amendment Act 2013.

Will you help? Will you stand with me in action to ensure that change will come?

Names have been changed.

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