The Ngawha scandal proves Corrections cannot be trusted to change its own culture

On Monday the government announced its new five-year strategy to reduce the Māori prison population. Emilie Rākete looks at another ‘kaupapa Māori’ prison initiative that degrades prisoners and asks if Corrections are capable of seeing it through.

On August 19th, the Department of Corrections announced Hōkai Rangi, its new strategy intended to reduce the enormous rate at which Māori released from prison are ending up quickly reimprisoned. The new strategy comes after the Waitangi Tribunal’s Tū Mai te Rangi! report in 2017, which found that Corrections’ lack of any strategy in this area could constitute a breach of the Treaty. Hōkai Rangi contains a number of changes which Kelvin Davis, Minister of Corrections, says will allow for “authentic co-design with Māori, incorporating a Te Ao Māori worldview.” Some of these changes might be good things – many of them are just continuations of existing, failing policies – but a deeper concern than just questions about procedure started to grow in me while I read the strategy. Reading Hokāi Rangi, I paused on article 2.8 of the plan: it would be a government department, a subsidiary of the department called the Inspector of Corrections, which would be tasked with ensuring Hōkai Rangi is put into practice.

Since 2015 I’ve been a member of People Against Prisons Aotearoa, a prison abolitionist group that runs the largest prisoner penpal service in the country and works directly with incarcerated people when their rights are violated. In every case, the people who come to us when the Corrections system is too callous or inept to help them do so because we are an independent organisation. Our advocates are able to call attention to injustice without the institutional bias that comes from sharing a boss and an office with the people we’re investigating.

By contrast, article 2.8 of Hōkai Rangi entrusts the Inspector of Corrections with ensuring that a minimum standard for health and hygiene is maintained in prisons. Finishing the strategy, I put it down and asked myself – was Corrections itself responsible enough to ensure that the rights of Māori are upheld in our prison cells?

I didn’t need to wait long for an answer, because within 24 hours of Hōkai Rangi being released, the Office of the Ombudsman released its investigation into Northland Regional Correctional Facility. The Office of the Ombudsman is a government watchdog tasked with, among other things, with making unannounced visits to prisons to monitor their compliance with the Crimes of Torture Act. The report assessed Ngawha, a prison that was built on my rohe in 2005 as a pilot ‘kaupapa Māori prison’, a proof-of-concept intended to demonstrate that Corrections can incorporate Māori cultural practices into the prison system.

The Ombudsman’s report into conditions in Ngawha completely destroys any claim that Corrections is capable of self-policing. The Ombudsman found that CCTV cameras were streaming prisoners using the toilet and undressing to open offices, a humiliating violation of privacy that breaches the Crimes of Torture Act. Sixteen prisoners who investigators spoke to reported having suffered sexual violation in the prison. Staff had threatened to put vulnerable prisoners back into dangerous mainstream units to shut down complaint procedures. Temperatures in unventilated cells were recorded at 28° C.

Most disgustingly, since June 2018 prisoners wanting access to an external courtyard were locked out of their cells, leaving them without any access to toilets for hours at a time. Without any other options, prisoners in our country’s first ‘kaupapa Māori prison’ were forced to urinate and defecate in the open. Quite understandably, the Ombudsman reported that the relationship between Ngawha and mana whenua had broken down. How are our society’s most vulnerable people, the people most in need of manaaki, supposed to reconnect with Papatūānuku and Ranginui in a prison yard that reeks of shit?

These facts have only come to light because the Ombudsman could carry out an independent investigation. The Inspectorate of Corrections, as well as the internal prisoner complaints procedure, seem to have achieved nothing. It’s not like the inhabitants of Ngawha were happy with their situation – the Ombudsman reports that they elected a representative to take their concerns to prison administrators. Andrew Richards, Ngawha’s prison director, simply refused to meet with this representative. This is the terminal flaw with Hōkai Rangi’s aspirations to reduce the Māori reimprisonment rate. Corrections doesn’t do anything unless public humiliation forces them. The in-house Corrections watchdog that we’re meant to believe will deliver Hōkai Rangi’s human rights ideas spent 13 months ignoring prisoners having to exercise in an open sewer.

In te reo Māori, ‘hōkai rangi’ means ‘to ascend to the heavens’. Unless that name refers to the fumes of human waste wafting off Ngawha, Corrections has shown itself incapable of carrying this plan through. The only way we’ll even get the chance to see if Hōkai Rangi falls on its face like the last plan to reduce reimprisonment is if we have a rigorous, external, independent investigatory body to monitor Corrections and ensure it actually puts its plan into practice.

There’s already grounds to call for an independent oversight body in Hōkai Rangi itself. The very first thing that Corrections says about the new direction it wants to take is that it “will lead through best-practice Crown-Māori relations.” Elsewhere Corrections claims that it will establish “mana whenua partnerships at each prison site” in the next six months. The plan is to work with mana whenua to assemble teams of local kaumātua, human rights lawyers, academics, and concerned members of the public for each prison.

If Corrections means what it says and Hōkai Rangi is the beginning of genuine shared decision making with Māori, it will recognise these teams and allow them independent access to the prisons. If Kelvin Davis refuses in favour of the same secret, unaccountable system that allowed Ngawha to become a cesspit, the hope for Hōkai Rangi to be truly transformational will be dashed. If that’s the case, I’ll see you all in 20 years’ time at the next Waitangi Tribunal hearing on this same subject. It’s bound to be a long one: let’s hope the bathrooms are unlocked.

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