New prison strategy, new population reduction target

A new five-year Corrections strategy aims to significantly reduce the Māori imprisonment rate and address reoffending. Laura Walters reports on the priorities of Hōkai Rangi, and a new Government target.

In 2017, the Waitangi Tribunal found the Crown had not been meeting its obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi regarding the disproportionate rate of Māori imprisonment and recidivism.

Corrections got to work on developing a new strategy for Māori, something the department had been without for about a decade.

Two years on, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis has unveiled the new strategy, which will not only be used to guide and measure change for Māori prisoners, but for the whole prison population.

Until recently, Hōkai Rangi was to be the Māori Corrections strategy but late in the piece, Davis and Corrections chief executive Christine Stevenson said it became clear that what was good for Māori was good for everyone.

Māori make up 52 percent of the prison population but less than 16 percent of the general population.

The reimprisonment rate for Māori over four years is 55 percent, compared to Pākehā at 45 percent. Meanwhile, the rate of reconviction ending in a community sentence for recidivsit Māori offenders is 80 percent, compared to 76 percent for Pākehā.

“We’ve all seen the statistics and they are so enduring that the reality that over half of our prison population is Māori has just become a normal fact of life. The status quo is no longer acceptable.”

“The over-representation of Māori in our prisons is devastating to whānau, hapū, and iwi,” Davis said.

The Corrections system was not working for the majority of Māori, he said.

“We’ve all seen the statistics and they are so enduring that the reality that over half of our prison population is Māori has just become a normal fact of life.

“The status quo is no longer acceptable.”

Ambitious targets

The coalition Government has a difficult relationship with targets.

While Davis has the overall goal of reducing the prison population by 30 percent in 15 years, following consideration early on, he decided not to put in place a specific target for reducing the Māori prison population.

But on Monday – at the launch of Hōkai Rangi – Davis formally committed to reducing the Māori prison population to match the general population. This is something he's commented on in the past, but in more of an aspirational way, rather than as a commitment.

While Davis did not put a specific timeframe on achieving this target, Stevenson said she believed it was a multi-generational goal.

In the medium term, Davis hoped to achieve a 10 percent reduction in the overall prison population in the next five years - at the conclusion of this strategy.

Broadly speaking, the Government has done away with incremental targets, such as the previous government’s Better Public Service Targets.

One of the few policies with incremental targets was KiwiBuild, which had since been overhauled after failing to meet those targets. There were also the Prime Minister's Child Poverty Reduction Targets.

Otherwise, most targets were operational, and set by departments, rather than as part of government policy.

However, Davis said part of the work currently underway with Hōkai rangi was identifying measures and indicators to enable progress to be tracked. These measures were expected to be finalised in the next few weeks.

The department would also be embedding accountability for achieving the strategy’s objectives across the organisation.

And Corrections created a new position for a deputy chief executive – Māori, to lead the work.

A different strategy

While there had been other Māori strategies in the past, Corrections had been without a Māori-focused plan for about a decade.

And Davis said this was the first time Māori had developed the strategy.

In the past, government departments – not just Corrections – had created the strategies and told Māori ‘You’re going to love it’.

“This is the first time a government department has sat down and said, ‘Let’s co-design something, let’s listen to the voices of people in prison, let’s listen to the voices of their whānau, let’s listen to the voices of experts, and then come up with a strategy’."

The Māori concepts of whakapapa (identity) and whānau (family) were key foundations to participation, rehabilitation and reintegration for everyone, and applicable no matter a prisoner's background or ethnicity.

The key change with Hōkai Rangi was the system would treat the person, not the crime.

While consulting those with lived experience, the reference group gathered quotes and stories.

Davis said the quote that stuck with him was from a man who was separated from his mother for the first time when he went to prison at 17. “I used to cry myself to sleep.”

“It’s real, it’s human and it’s devastating,” Davis said.

“Prison is the punishment, having your liberty taken from you is the punishment. The point is not once you’re in prison punish you further. The point is to help you, so you don’t come back."

Stevenson said having a strategy that included whānau was about helping people keep connections and support networks while they were in prison, and after they left.

“Prison is the punishment, having your liberty taken from you is the punishment. The point is not once you’re in prison punish you further. The point is to help you, so you don’t come back," she said.

Most prisoners would at some point be released, and the best thing for communities was for those prisoners to be able to function well as citizens, able to work, able to care for their families and not reoffend.

The fact the system has failed Māori was not a revelation and was reiterated in the recent Hui Māori report – Ināia Tonu Nei.

The report reinforced what was well-known by those working in this space, that Māori were disproportionately represented and punished by a system not designed for them. It called for genuine partnership between Māori and the Crown, and the abolition of the prison system as it currently exists.

“My commitment on behalf of my organisation to do better for people in our care, for their whānau, and all Aotearoa New Zealand,” Stevenson said on Monday.

What happens next?

Some initiatives as part of the new strategy are already underway.

As part of the Wellbeing Budget, the Government announced the creation of a new approach for Māori offenders, to be initially rolled out at Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison and Northland Region Corrections Facility.

The Māori Pathways programme would have a kaupapa Māori and whānau-centred approach for offenders, from pre-sentence through to reintegration and transition into the community.

The $98 million programme would initially focus on Māori men under 30, who had the highest rates of recidivism.

And in June last year, Davis announced a scaled-down version of the Waikeria prison rebuild, (500 beds) with a 100-bed mental health unit. The unit would be the first to use a Māori model of care informed through co-design with Waikato DHB, whānau, hapū, iwi and other community services.

Three additional special treatment units – a high-intensity group therapy intervention – would be provided for those at high risk of reoffending; a Waikato resettlement centre was being developed in partnership with the Kiingitanga and Housing New Zealand; the new Te Mana Wāhine Pathway was being introduced for Māori women; and the gang engagement framework designed to help those affiliated with gangs to reintegrate and disengage was underway.

Meanwhile, the Crown would be co-designing further systems with Māori, developing an action plan for implementation, finalising those measures of success, embedding accountability and establishing appropriate governance.

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