Māori incarceration runs deep in New Zealand history but two university professors say taking a tikanga approach to criminal justice could break the racist system that traps Māori in generational cycles of imprisonment.

Māmari Stephens, a Māori law professor at Victoria University, says the way Māori are channeled through the prison system is “absolutely grievous” and suggests that taking a tikanga, or a ‘Māori way of doing things’, approach.

Incarceration among Māori rose sharply from 1955 to 1980 as urbanisation pushed them into lower socio-economic groups. The neoliberal reforms in the 1980s, in which successive governments slashed the welfare system, have also been blamed for exacerbating these issues.

Māori were severely affected due to disproportionately being employed by the government and other industries like the freezing works. This saw Māori unemployment peak at 25 percent in 1992, while unemployment in the general population rose to just 6 percent. 

Stephens links this to the rise of Māori in prisons which she says “has never decreased”; Māori made up 52 percent of the prison population in March this year. This “intergenerational incarnation will not be fixed by one policy” and “can not be done by Pākehā, has to be done by Māori, with Pākehā support,” she says.

Incarceration follows a generational cycle, where children follow in the footsteps of their fathers, said Tracey McIntosh, a Māori sociologist professor at The University of Auckland.

She has seen this trend working in the prison environment with women for 12 years. She said those found in the youth justice system “have had state care experiences themselves”.

“The fact that Māori are so disproportionately represented shows the forms of racism that are in play,” she said.

Whilst prisons are 93 percent male, the number of women in prison has increased from 98 in 1986 to 975, this March.

McIntosh said this is an example of systemic racism that is similar to the US, where research had shown a trend towards targeting black men and women as well.

McIntosh said the “gross proportions of indigenous people in prisons, where Māori make up 16 percent of the total population are over 50 percent rep in prisons” shows deep-rooted racism.

In an online talk run by University of Auckland alumni, McIntosh led a seminar titled ‘Imagining a World without Prisons’, where she said that within two years of coming out of prison, 63 percent of Māori inmates will have another conviction. Within five years that number rises to 81 percent and more than half will have been re-imprisoned. The statistics are overwhelming and the numbers cry out for systemic change.

With New Zealand having one of the highest rates of incarceration in the developed world hope seems bleak. McIntosh says mass incarceration means Māori incarceration. However, she is optimistic that change is possible and sees iwi advisory panels who work with police as a solution for the future.

Stephens agrees that “change where iwi are crafting solutions for their people” is the best hope we have for systemic change. Whānau Ora, the government Maori health initiative the Māori Party progressed in 2010 is an encouraging example. It has been very successful in health with a focus on working from the bottom up.

“All humans seek to avoid shame and to accumulate pride,” McIntosh said. “And the thing is, there are processes and there is privilege that allows certain groups to accumulate far more pride practises”. She sees an opportunity to enhance the mana and dignity of all people.

Stephens said that when Māori are at the table they are not just as a minority but a treaty partner. She notes that equal access and protection is outlined in Article 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi.

“When Māori are no longer prejudiced, it benefits all,” she said.

The conversation around institutional racism is not new. However, the movement to boost the voice of those marginalised by the prison system in New Zealand has sparked conversations about change. There is an air of hope, where young voices who are taking part in protests, and Pakeha who are listening to the stories of Māori, are seeking change.

Our voices are being heard and change is possible.

Data source: Department of Corrections 

VICTORIA WHISKER is a recent English Lit and Classical studies graduate and who loves all things words. Stands by her beliefs in ‘The whole story is the best story’, God and a dessert stomach.