Tuari Potiki. Photo: Supplied.

Corrections’ plan to use te ao Māori to reduce Māori incarceration rates

Hōkai Rangi is a recently-released strategy aiming to drastically lower the ratio of Māori in prison in New Zealand, using Māori strategy to do so. Alice Webb-Liddall spoke with Tuari Potiki, the University of Otago’s director of the Office of Māori Development, about what these changes mean for incarcerated Māori and their whānau. 

Over half of New Zealand’s prison population is Māori. It’s a statistic that’s been repeated for years by both those advocating for change in our corrections policy, and those trying to make a point about Māori criminality. In August, corrections minister Kelvin Davis announced a new policy called Hōkai Rangi, an initiative with the goal to dramatically reduce the Māori prison population through new strategies involving tikanga, reo and te ao Māori. 

These strategies include actively providing incarcerated Māori with the resources necessary to learn about and connect with their whakapapa while they’re in prison, provide services to support the whānau of those incarcerated and work closely with iwi, hapu and Māori NGOs to create a justice system that works more fairly for Māori people in and outside of prison. 

The ultimate goal of Hōkai Rangi is to bring down the ratio of Māori in prison from 52% to 16%, representative of the overall Māori population.

The director of the Office of Māori Development at the University of Otago, Tuari Potiki (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe, Waitaha) has seen first hand the damage prison does to communities in his work as an Māori alcohol and drug clinician in a number of prisons in Christchurch. He is excited to see the results from Hōkai Rangi, telling The Spinoff it’s about time the traditional Pākehā justice system made some room for Māori values.

What are you initial thoughts on the policy?

It’s the most comprehensive policy I’ve seen in my time and I think the intent is really good. I think it sends really key messages about the expectation and also the role of prison. Of course there is a punishment aspect, which is the whole point of having prisons, but if you’re serious about reducing reoffending and people not going back to prison then we have to do a hell of a lot more to get support for people while they’re in there.

As was pointed out on the day of the release, there are over 5000 Māori in prison, over half of the prison population, and for women the percentage is even higher. We’ve got to change and we’ve got to do something differently. 

We see shows dramatising prisons and we hear these stories of people saying “prisoners shouldn’t get roast chicken on Christmas Day”, but most of us won’t ever know what it’s actually like being inside. Can you shed any light on that?

Prisons are shitholes. They are brutal. They are predatory, it’s the survival of the strongest and not just the gangs but all the groups of people who have authority and dominance over others. There are people who complain “they have roast chicken on Christmas Day,” as an example of how they’re a luxury resort or something, but they have no idea of the reality of being in a prison and the brutality and abuse that goes on, the rapes, the violence and intimidation. The whole atmosphere is horrid.

What we do is we send people to prison and in doing that, we cut people off from their friends, their families, their kids, their culture, their marae, their tikanga, their grandparents, and of course, that’s the punishment. That’s why we do it. We put up these walls that block prisoners from engaging with all of these things, but these things are the very things that are most likely to help them not reoffend in the future. I used to work in the prisons and 100% of the time if you ask any prisoner, male or female, what the most important thing in their life is, the top of the list is always kids, without a doubt. The one thing, above anything else, that is likely to make someone want to change is their kids. 

Similarly we cut them off from their marae, from connecting to their people, their hapu, their iwi, their tikanga, so the very nature of prison and the way prison operates cuts inmates off from the very things most likely to help them in their future. That’s the thing that does their head in and that’s the thing I see Hōkai Rangi doing; connecting.

Part of Hōkai Rangi is this focus on the whānau outside of prison. What is the importance of this aspect to the overall goal of reducing the Māori prison population?

When you have these walls cutting people off from their whānau and their support, you end up with two aggrieved populations; you have the prisoners who obviously can’t connect, and then you have whānau who are also victims. Kids don’t have a say in this; if their Mum or Dad goes to jail they’re punished. I’ve heard it said again and again, often by mums whose men have gone to jail, “you get the sentence but so do we. You’ve been sent away for three years, you get all your meals cooked but we have to survive out here with three kids on a benefit.”

The idea is that this acknowledges whānau also need help and support, it doesn’t just happen by accident, it has to be guided and managed by us, not by Pākehā. I’m sick of that, it doesn’t work. We need people sitting alongside whānau to help the reconnection happen, to look at what they can do that will be helping their chances of success and of not reoffending, identifying some bottom lines, where they start to put some values down. It could be as simple as having a alcohol and drug-free home, the whānau saying “our home is the place of our tamariki and it should be a safe environment, we really want you here because you’re the papa, but it’s a kohanga for the kids so don’t bring drugs here, don’t bring violence into this whare”. There are things where both sides need to be helped, not just one side. I see that as being crucial. 

The Pākehā system isn’t working for Māori, we’ve known this for years. Why is it now that we’re finally implementing changes that take this into account?

I think it’s important that the minister Kelvin Davis is Māori, he gets us on another level. I’m not politically aligned but I do think that having a Māori person sitting in that seat, it’s different. It then becomes not just about a population of people, it’s about a population of your own whānau.

I also think that there’s a wider movement right across the board, right across government happening at the moment. What has or hasn’t happened for Māori is being acknowledged and a spotlight’s being shone on it. We’ve had Treaty of Waitangi Commission reports on the health sector, how it’s failed Māori and that they actually have to take some responsibility to tackle the ongoing poor health that Māori suffer.

Māori are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be sentenced, more likely to be given prison time and less likely to be given diversion. All of that’s coming home to roost, and now there are people listening and saying “yeah, actually that sucks.” Now, Māori and iwi and community groups are saying “enough is enough, what you’ve done hasn’t worked, in fact, what you’ve done has created the problem and perpetuated it, so thank you, but get out, let us have a go.” 

When the report on Hōkai Rangi was released I got asked by the ODT what I thought about it and the person they went to straight afterward was Greg Newbold, who’s this Pākehā academic at Canterbury University. The thing that I said that they didn’t print was “that’s exactly what we need, another old white man telling us what to do”. They didn’t get it. That’s why we have to have these special things, because the default population of Pākehā don’t see themselves as any part of the problem. 

I’ve been around corrections and the justice system long enough to recognise that these psychologists and all of the criminogenic needs stuff hasn’t worked, it’s made things worse. It’s time for you fullas to get out of the way and give us a shot. 

The policy includes a five-year goal to reduce the number of Māori in prison by 10%. Do you think this is realistic?

I’m cautiously optimistic. If you haven’t got a plan then it won’t come true. They needed a plan and that’s what this is. I think 10% is a realistic goal to set. It’s still going to be really hard but if we can do that it’ll be huge. 

Hōkai Rangi is about the 5000 Māori currently sitting in our jails. It’s about helping those people. It’s going to be hard because it’s going to require a real sea change in the culture of the prisons. The staff are going to have to stop being assholes and they’ve got one of the strongest unions in the country so they’re going to push back really hard. A whole lot of those prison officers think they’re there to punish. They’re part of the problem so there’s going to be a huge culture change required in the jail.

Everything connects – it’s education, it’s keeping Māori kids in school for longer, giving them a sense of purpose and hope, maybe a job, ideally. Trying to stop them from that pathway that gets them into jail in the first place. It’s about poverty, it’s socio-economic, it’s alcohol and drugs. The solution is much bigger than just Hōkai Rangi. 

If it goes well, Hōkai Rangi could be the start of a huge shift in terms of achieving lower Māori incarceration rates. Do you feel as though the policy missed any crucial elements of Māori incarceration?

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We have to join the dots better between our education system, our health system, our criminal justice system, mental health system. Increasing opportunities for young Māori, giving them hope and giving them some options, and that’s going to be a longer-term pathway. 

The culture in prisons needs to be dealt with, creating an environment for people to better themselves within that brutality. The bigger picture is much harder. Whānau Ora has potentially got a role to play. Some of the Whānau Ora navigators getting in to help some of these whānau can make a difference. There’s a lot of research to say the mothers have the most influence over kids, so getting more support alongside mothers, and that can just be about creating some space. It’s connection. We need to connect all of these dots. We need to be treating these things as all contributing, rather than having separate agencies to do each one. 

I’m optimistic. Without being silly about it, I think they’re trying to do the right thing, they’re trying something different, they’re trying something new. For me, one of the strongest parts of this is that it’s for us, by us. So the group that was brought together are all Māori. It’s a real watershed moment, all of those Pākehā clinicians and experts aren’t going to like it but they’re a part of the problem, so I think this is a genuine example of getting them out of the way and giving us a go.

This content was created in paid partnership with the University of Otago. Learn more about our partnerships here.


This content is brought to you by the University of Otago – a vibrant contributor to Māori development and the realisation of Māori aspirations, through our Māori Strategic Framework and world-class researchers and teachers.

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