Criminal Justice Summit: Plenary discussion on over-representation of Māori in the system
“I had never been hit or abused, until the day the men came to take me away. I still don’t even know why.”
That’s how Sam began to tell me his story at a marae in Whangarei.
Sam is now 60. The gang patches on his face still vivid.
His life has been spent in and out of prison. But now, he has had enough.
Enough of the violence. Enough of the P. Enough of ‘The Life.’
Sam was just 10 years-old when strangers arrived at his house in Mangere and took him away. His only crime was that he was born into a whānau of 16 children.
They took him away from his home, away from his family, and put him on a train to a boys’ home in Levin.
He had never known abuse or violence in his life until he walked through their doors.
Four years later - and Sam was put on another train and sent back to Auckland.
He told me that when he stepped off the train in Auckland he had changed so much as a person that it no longer felt like home. He felt like he no longer belonged there.
Within two weeks he had joined a gang – a new home, a new family he would remain with for the next 48 years.
When Sam told me his story - in fact when Māori across the country doing time tell me their stories - I can’t help but ask the question:
Why didn’t we do something? As a government, as Māori: Why didn’t we help?
Why are Māori up and down the country more likely to visit the pad than the marae?
And why are whole whānau turning to crime to feed their kids rather than turning to the government for support?
We took that 10 year-old boy – scared and confused – we took him, we threw him into the system and it spat out a broken young man with nowhere to turn but a life in the gang.
Why did we let that happen to Sam? And why do we still refuse to be bold and brave and do something to help people like Sam today?
We take pride in New Zealand as a country that leads the world in many ways.
Whether it’s our sporting achievements, our science and tech innovation, or our film industry. And we should be proud of these things.
But there is an ugly reality in this country. We are a world leader when it comes to putting people in prison.
We can’t seem to get enough of it.
We have the second highest incarceration rate in the world - and a level of imprisonment that is simply devastating our Māori whānau and communities.
You have all seen the statistics.
Roughly 16 per cent of our country’s population are Māori, yet we make up 51 per cent of all people in prison.
It is worse for our women and our young people.
Wāhine Māori make up around 60 per cent of the female prison population and the figure is similar for the number of young Māori offenders doing time on the inside.
It’s not just imprisonment rates.
Our people are over-represented at every stage of the criminal justice system:
In Oranga Tamariki care; in Youth Justice; criminal convictions; in dealings with the Police, and as victims of crime.
It’s not a new problem.
Successive governments have failed to overcome this challenge, let alone accept it as one that we can and must overcome.
This is personal for me.
I look around this room and I see Māori – professionals, public servants, whānau, leaders and iwi representatives – and I know you feel this too.
These are our people I'm talking about. Over half of all prisoners are Māori and about half of these are from my iwi of Ngāpuhi.
In fact, my tribe of Ngāpuhi are probably the most incarcerated tribe in the world per head of population.
I’ve had whānau in prison. I grew up in a street where a number of people living there went to prison. These guys were my mates: I used to build huts with them; swim in the floods with them; we would play in the paddocks together.
That’s not to excuse the offences these people have committed – but something has to be done to reduce the scale of this problem and the sheer waste of human potential.
So, this is very much a personal issue.
And as the Minister of Corrections: I want answers.
There is only so much you can learn from reports and international evidence, patterns, rates and projections.
I wanted to talk to prisoners.
So I have gone up and down the country, brought together groups of Māori inmates and asked them the simple question:
What do we need to do to help you so that when you leave prison you never come back?
And when I talk about ‘We’ – I mean the Government and Māori together.
I don’t know what I expected - but what I didn’t expect was the openness of each man and woman who spoke.
A woman at Wiri told me she had spent her life in and out of prison.
She had violent outbursts and the scars on her wrists told the story of those days when it all got too much.
Then she talked about an anger management course she had just finished.
She said it had changed her life: She can now communicate with her family, regulate her emotions and control her outbursts.
She then asked me: ‘Why couldn’t I have done this course when I was 15? Gee, my life would have been so different’.
I heard similar stories from the men I sat down with in the Special Treatment Unit at Rimutaka.
One of these men told me the rehabilitation programme they were on had taught him he actually had options when he became angry– options other than expressing that anger and frustration as violence.
Another said he had never even thought about or considered his inner feelings and emotions until he was on this programme – because the way he was raised, talking about feelings or showing vulnerability was not acceptable. It was unthinkable.
And all of them told me the same thing: They don’t want this life for their kids.
Then there’s the young Māori man who told me that when he was released from prison all he wanted to do was go home and see his Mum and Dad - but because he had a Non Association Order and his whole family were in a gang - he couldn’t go home.
He said: ‘I get that they take my freedom away because of the crimes I committed. But they took my whānau too’.
Men in prison tell me how much they benefit from Tikanga Māori courses - that it changes their lives when they learn haka, waiata and karakia.
But when that man goes home changed and wanting to live a new life - before he sits down to eat with his whānau he starts to say karakia and his wife and kids look at him like he’s a stranger.
Just last week, an articulate and polite young Māori man - only 18 years-old - had a tattoo scribbled across his face that read: ‘Trust No One’.
I asked him why he got that tattoo and he replied: ‘No one has done nothing for me, and everyone has let me down. My whānau, my friends and the system’.
Those disappointments and failures are now etched on his face as a constant reminder.
And why would he believe any different?
The system is broken.
It’s not working. And our whānau are hurting the most.
If we genuinely want to see fewer Māori caught in the system as both perpetrators and victims of crime, then we need to fundamentally change our approach to criminal justice.
This summit marks the start of this change.
It’s time as a government, it’s time as Māori that we work together to help our people.
In our communities, in our prisons and when they come out.
There had to be dozens of points in Sam’s life when someone could have stepped in.
And in Sam’s case, the one time we did step in, our intervention sent him down the path that ultimately turned him into a gang member – and not just him, but his whānau, and their whānau too.
In the end, we punished a child whose only crime was being born into a family of 16 children, then we sentenced him to a life of crime.
And we need to own that.
It’s our fault he spent nearly half a century in a gang.
If you think Sam is the exception to the rule – you are wrong.
There are 5000 Sams in our prisons. And they include his children, and his grandchildren.
We need to do something together to create a different future for Māori and for their whanau.
We need to break the cycle, connect them to their people, help them, and have hope for them.
And if we accept that there is a need for change – then we must all be part of that.
We - all of us - need to change the system. But we also need to change.
As a government we need to make sure the system helps and does not hurt Māori further.
We need to make sure those who have found their way into the system leave as better people - not broken people.
And when I visit our prisons full of our Māori men and women, I know that - if we are 51 per cent of the problem – then it must be up to us to lead the solution.
But we can only do it with the support of every person in this room.
As Māori we need to take care of our own, rather than closing our doors. We need to face up to and free ourselves from the violence that many of our people, our whānau struggle with.
Here’s where we can learn something from Sam:
When he heard the boys’ home in Levin had closed, he and his wife jumped in the car and drove back to the place where it all started.
He told me it was something he just had to do.
And it was when he was standing outside the gates that he finally broke down and offered his forgiveness.
He forgave the men who took him away; the boys’ home that broke his spirit; the government and the people who turned their backs on him.
He forgave us.
As a gang member you would expect Sam to be hard - to be strong. But one of the strongest things he’s ever done is to forgive us for the life we gave him, his kids, and his grandkids.
I’ll probably never know why Sam trusted me with his story. I was a stranger to him.
What I do know, is that I feel the weight of carrying his story, telling his story and sharing it with all of you.
And I know that we need to write a new story for our people.
So: What are we going to do? That is my question to all of you here today.
Together, how are we going to take up the challenge that others have been too timid, or too hardened or too short-sighted to accept?
What are we going to do to deserve Sam’s forgiveness?