Watching the latest news from Waikeria Prison confirms what we have known for some time – that prisons simply do not work. In fact, they make the situation worse, making people more likely to reoffend, as well as hurting whānau on the outside.
Māori make up over 50% of the New Zealand prison population, even though we are only around 17% of the total population. This horrifying statistic is even worse for wāhine Māori who now comprise 63% of the total female prison population. But these imbalances are not a case of Māori being more likely to commit crime and therefore more likely to find ourselves imprisoned.
Rather the disproportionate rates that see Māori incarcerated far more than any other group in Aotearoa can be partly attributed to racism, discrimination and inequality. Data shows that if a Māori and a non-Māori appear before the same court on the same charge, it is over ten times more likely that the Māori defendant will be sent to prison.
Looking at these issues, we follow the wisdom and expertise of people like Tā Kim Workman, Professor Tracey McIntosh and Julia Whaipooti. We know our people are frequently kept under conditions and policies that are dehumanising and damaging. These include the same racist attitudes that led to wāhine Māori being tortured in their cells, subjected to gassing, and unlawfully segregated for months on end.
Being sent to prison is the punishment. The prisons themselves must still meet the human rights of those incarcerated, and from our perspective uphold the mana and tapu* of those in Correction’s care.
As Mihinare priests we believe that it is our calling to respond to such injustice, to speak truth to power and to proclaim the Gospel with words and actions. This is consistent with Jesus’ ministry, calling out the wrongs in society - both immediate and structural. How we treat the weak and poor is the ultimate measure of our society – not our sporting wins or GDP.
This is also consistent with our history as Mihinare. We do not stand idly by while our people are subjected to further oppression and marginalisation. And this is not just a calling for priests. All Mihinare – all people of faith – are called to respond to these situations. One of the keys though is as Mihinare we respond as Christians informed and shaped by the mātauranga of this land, not just what “liberal” or “conservative” Christianity derived from the global North would have us do. And so we have four actions for you to consider:
Understand where your whānau is in this issue. Because of the world-leading imprisonment rates of Māori in relation to our population, every whānau has a mokopuna or whanaunga in prison. While their actions may have denigrated the mana and tapu of others, and may be a cause of shame for the whānau, that doesn’t mean what they are going through is deserved or is working. Many are incarcerated because of structural racism. Most will come out worse than they went in. And prison is not our tikanga. For many of us we know this situation all too well, and it is a source of great pain and hurt. But for the rest of us we need to know – and own – our whanaunga and mokopuna in prison.
Blaming structural racism? How will they come out worse? Don’t they deserve it? All important questions. And as a starting response: Prisons do not work. They do not work in terms of lessening the chance of reoffending. They do not rehabilitate and heal. They do not restore the mana and tapu of the victim, nor of the offender. They do not meet the tikanga of Jesus nor of our tīpuna. So take the time (hover over the waters) to understand the causes and solutions involved (which are complex). Do some reading; talk to people who know; wānanga with your whānau; and study scripture. Maybe Luke 4:16-20 is a starting place – when Jesus said he had been sent to proclaim release to the captives, what did he mean? Opening cell doors? Or undoing the structures that bind our people into poverty and crime?
As Mihinare we have a proud tradition of living out our faith, of our faith empowering us to act, to do more, to be more, and to seek the best for one another. Sometimes these actions are big, like taking over a stadium during an international rugby tour, other times they are humble, like lending a sympathetic ear. One thing remains true however, no matter how big or small, they are never insignificant. Our tīpuna embraced the power of the written word, and it is to this seemingly simple tool that we now return. If you feel called to act, then pick up a pen, grab a piece of paper and write to the Māori Members of Parliament, to our members of Parliament (or do it all online, it is 2021 after all) and let them know that even though many of the people who now find themselves incarcerated may have committed crimes, they are still our whānau, they are still our mokopuna, and we still love them – they deserve more.
Kia Inoi Tātau
E te Atua aroha,
hai tā ngā karaipiture i whakataua hētia koe he tangata hara.
Ā, i mātau koe ki ngā hua o te whakarauanga:
te noho taratahi;
me te pōrarutanga.
Awhinatia mātau kia maharatia,
ina tirohia ngā kanohi o te mau herehere,
ka kite atu nei hoki i tōu kanohi.
in scripture you were condemned as a criminal
and you knew the isolation,
and the confusion that imprisonment brings.
Help us to remember
that when we look upon the faces of those in prison,
it is your face that we are called to see.
Ka inoi mātau,
mō ngā tāngata hara, me te hunga e tūkino ana e rātau, e te Atua tohu,
whakamanatia rātau ki te whakahou i ō rātau oranga,
kia whai tūmanako hoki mō āmuri;
mō te whakarau kua whakaraua hētia,
tukuna kia haere noa.
For those who have hurt others, and those who are hurt by them, we pray, merciful God,
that they might be enabled to transform their lives,
and be granted hope for the future.
For those imprisoned unjustly,
bring them release we pray.
Ka inoi mātau mō te hunga kawe tikanga kai rō whare herehere.
Meinga mā te aroha rātau e arahi i ngā mea katoa,
kia mahara hoki ki to whakahau i roto i a Te Karaiti:
ko tā koutou i mea ai ki te mau herehere, he meatanga tēnā ki a koe.
We pray for those who have authority over prisons.
May they be guided always by compassion
and may they be reminded of your exhortation in Christ:
that what they do to those in prison they do to you.
Engari rawa ia, e te Atua, whakamutua atu
ngā hanganga whakaware,
ngā waiaro kaikiri,
me te tāmitanga a te kaiwhakawiri,
e tuku noa ana i tō mātau iwi ki te whakarau.
We pray that the oppressive structures,
and colonial superiority
that condemn our people to prison may cease.
Nei rā, kia pāruretia te utu
e te whakaora,
kia whakawākia ngātahitia mātau
ki te tika me te tohu mutunga kore. Āmine.
That the desire to heal
might overcome the desire for vengeance
and that the seeking of justice
might go hand in hand with the call to mercy. Amen.
By Rev Canon Christopher Douglas-Huriwai, Ven Michael Tamihere and Ven Dr Hirini Kaa.
*Glossary of Māori language terms
Inoi: pray, prayer
Mahi: work, action
Mana and tapu: personal dignity, authority, the sanctity/holiness of the human person/soul
Mātauranga: Māori systems of knowledge
Mihinare: Māori Anglican(s)
Mokopuna: grandchild(ren), relative(s) in your grandchildren’s generation
Tikanga: way of doing things, way of being
Tīpuna: ancestor(s), forebear(s)
Wānanga: study, learn
Whānau: family, extended family
Whanaunga: member(s) of the wider extended family