Māori voices should take prominence in the justice debate

‘Nothing about us without us’ is becoming a popular catch cry of indigenous people the world over. Now the University of Otago is asking for Māori perspectives only on Māori incarceration.

Earlier this year, the government announced it will spend $750 million to expand Waikeria prison by 500 beds; build 976 more beds at five different prisons around the country; and set up a new 100-bed facility for mental health patients in prison.

It’s less than the $1 billion the previous government planned to spend on locking people up, and more in line with what evidence says is needed to rehabilitate those who cause harm. Many of our whānau locked up in prisons suffer from mental distress and addiction.

But in all honesty, I think our systems have completely failed people if the only place they can get the mental health help they need is in a cage we call prison.

The prime minister described the decision on Waikeria as a move away from “American-style prisons”. But is the shift big enough?

The only Western (read: colonised) country with a higher rate of imprisonment than us is the United States of America, which locks up 748 people per 100,000. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the statistics are dramatically different depending on your whakapapa. While we lock up around 180 tauiwi (non-Māori) per 100,000, for Māori, it’s more like 700.

Today, Māori incarceration rates are the highest they have ever been.

While Māori comprise roughly 15% of the population, 52% of the people locked up in our male prisons are Māori, 63% of the women in prison are Māori and 73% of the young people in youth justice are Māori. All of this the tragic and inevitable outcome of stripping a people of their land, language and culture over generations.

It’s the by-product of successive governments stealing Māori children from their homes and placing them in abusive state care; the culmination of an imported justice system full of people who harbour racist views toward Māori, both conscious and unconscious; the end result of a justice system more interested in criminalising poverty than tackling extreme wealth and tax fraud.

If this poster was honest, the person on the right would definitely be brown.

Right now, ActionStation and fourth year medical students from the University of Otago in Wellington are conducting research into Māori attitudes towards our justice system.

“Nothing about us without us” has to be more than a nice slogan in advocacy and politics. It’s about embodying the idea that no policy should be decided by elected representatives without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy.

Therefore, as the people who judges and courts like to lock up the most, Māori voices and views should take prominence in the justice debate.

Should government invest more in locking people up or community-based interventions? What role should hapū and iwi play in our justice system? How important is it that government policy is based on evidence? Is prison a good place to treat mental health?

These are the questions, and more, that we are exploring over the next couple weeks. At the end of the research project, we will deliver a report of our findings to the minister of justice, minister of police and the minister of corrections. I am also hoping to deliver the findings at the recently announced Justice Summit at Parliament on August 20 if I can wrangle myself an invite.

So, if you identify as Māori, we’d love to hear from you in our online survey. We’re aiming for 1000 responses and so far have 790. You can also answer anonymously if you wish.

Click here to take the survey. It closes on Friday 20 July at 9am.

As well as the survey, Otago University students are conducting in-depth interviews with prominent Māori individuals in the justice space (e.g. Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho, Moana Jackson, Eugene Ryder, Kim Workman) and a literature review (that is, reading a bunch of the existing research in this space and drawing conclusions and connections).

The title of our report? ‘They’re our whānau’.

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