15 Oct 2018

Kōrero Pono: a multi-media exhibition of true stories from NZ's criminal justice system

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:31 pm on 15 October 2018

New Zealanders who've been through the criminal justice system tell their own stories in the Wellington exhibition Kōrero Pono (True Stories). Their statements are accompanied by portraits and photographs from 15 New Zealand artists.

The stories in Kōrero Pono reveal how much a prison term can impact a whole life, says the exhibition's organiser Jess, who is also in the exhibition.

She now works for the criminal justice charity JustSpeak, but has been to prison three times for drug-related charges.

Jess has been drug-free for eight and a half years now, yet because her last sentence was for two years and nine months (of which she served a year) she is ineligible for the government's Clean Slate scheme.

"I've really changed as a person but my criminal convictions will always be there. Because I got over two years I can't get the clean slate. So no matter how much I've changed or the work I've done or how many people I'm helping, my options are still very limited."

Jess approached JustSpeak for a job as soon as she got out of prison.

"I just really believe in their kaupapa [of] changing the justice system, making it fairer for people … So often, people who've been to prison, their voices aren't heard.

"We need to give more of a voice to Māori and people with lived experience because so often people are making decisions based on research or books… they just haven't been there."

Jess also has a criminology degree and was recently invited to present her research at an international prisons conference in London.

"I'd gone as far as ordering gluten-free on the plane and my visa got declined. I was very sad that night when I got that courier and it said my visa had been declined. I was eight years clean at the time and almost finished my criminology degree and I'm an honest person. My record will always be with me and it's something that can possibly hold me back although I'm pretty determined."

The Clean Slate programme is a great idea, she says, but only for those who qualify.

"I think we need to make it easier for people coming out of prison to reintegrate into the community. Putting a stigma on people is just gonna create an 'us and them' dichotomy.

"The journey through the justice system … when people are younger, it can really, really change the course of your life. Because if you're constantly hitting blocked opportunities for jobs or houses it's very hard not to go into doing crime."

Jess says she has seen lives transformed by "drug court" [Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court and some people in the exhibition have been through that.

"So many of the men and the women have been through a lot of trauma. People don't really talk about the fact that people in prison are victims so often. We tend to separate offenders and victims when really they're one and the same."

Jess encourages everyone to come along to the exhibition.

"If you've got any interest in criminal justice and you think 'lock em up' or whatever your attitude is, you're more than welcome to come. We want as diverse a group as possible to check out this exhibition. These stories are very moving. The people are from different walks of life, ages, identities, ethnicities, genders. I feel like it's something everybody needs to see… we're hoping to have lots of foot traffic."

Kōrero Pono is on at Potocki Paterson Gallery in Wellington until 26 October.