By Emmaline Pickering-Martin*
Opinion - A few days ago I saw the news that former rugby league player Manu Vatuvei was being released on parole and his former club, the One NZ Warriors, was offering him a volunteer role. The role was offered to help reintegrate and give Manu a chance at success back in society. Immediately I thought about the different reactions this would create within different communities.
I am writing this as someone who is not an expert in law. My expertise comes from lived experience and working with and for marginalised communities.
I have a degree in health sciences, a degree in education, a Masters degree in Pacific Studies from Waipapa Taumata Rau and am currently working on a PhD. I am a māmā of four biological children and a bonus parent to another four children. I work as a writer in communications, policy and advocacy. Most pertinent to this piece of writing, however, is that multiple people in our whānau have had experiences in the criminal justice system - including time incarcerated and trying to reintegrate back into normal life.
My initial reaction to the news was mixed. Methamphetamine has had a huge impact in the lives of people I love dearly and in my own life.
It's hard not to be angry when you have been directly impacted by addiction and have seen the hurt and pain it causes. So when you see someone convicted of bringing that specific drug into the country being shown what some may see as leniency, it becomes difficult to separate personal experiences from a bigger picture that actually may be beneficial for you and your community.
After my initial thoughts passed, I began to think about the people in my life who have had to face a parole board and their journeys of reintegration and rehabilitation despite the odds being hugely stacked against them.
When people make decisions in their lives that lead them to commit a crime there are always other factors at play. When they end up incarcerated there is an opportunity to deal with some of the factors that led them there, whether through healthcare inside prison, counselling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, or even cultural programmes.
About 55 percent of our prison population are involved in rehabilitation. They get a chance to deal with the issues they have and do better and may get the chance to be put on parole.
There are a few things that go into facing a parole board but one of them is presenting supporting documents from your community and people who can essentially vouch that they are willing to help you stay on track when you are released. This is what happened with Manu and One NZ Warriors.
In my view what One NZ Warriors have done is commendable. It can be all too easy to wash your hands of someone when they end up in the criminal justice system. Alongside this is the stigma that having criminal convictions holds. I understand many people will have the view that if people 'make their bed they should lie in it' but I would like to challenge that thinking by asking what the alternative is?
What do you think we should do with those who have convictions and have served their time according to the criminal justice system? Which, as an aside, research has shown to be deeply flawed. Do we want people commit the same crimes or do we want them to reintegrate and do better for themselves, for their whānau and for their extended communities?
Having a criminal conviction does not mean someone is an inherently bad person. But we know positive reintegration is key to preventing reoffending.
I have witnessed whānau members that have come out of prison rehabilitated and wanting to prove they had changed.
I have witnessed them also face rejection when it comes to gaining meaningful employment. I have seen them apply for jobs they are perfectly qualified for and the shame and hurt when they are told they haven't passed a criminal history check. I have seen their hearts sink every time there is a criminal history check stated in a job ad.
It can be hugely demoralising, especially when they have done the work to be better humans. I have also witnessed the cycle of rejection turn into negative decision making and leading back to crime. I have seen rejection leading to suicide. I have seen good people broken by a system that was meant to help them - because society doesn't believe they are worthy of a chance.
Colonisation brought prisons to this country and our society on one hand wants people to be 'punished' for their crimes they commit but doesn't want to face them when they have finished the 'punishment' that our own systems have given them. What kind of inside out backwards nonsense is this?
I also believe people should be paid. So while I agree with Manu being offered support I think he should be paid. Everyone should be paid for their, labour irrespective of their past. People with convictions deserve the opportunity to make money. They deserve the opportunity to prove they have changed. They deserve to be seen as human.
Constantly being discriminated against for their past will just push them into the margins further. Currently about 70 percent of our prison population reoffends within two years of being released or on parole. A continual cycle of recidivism and crime will cost us financially and socially.
When companies take a chance and hire people with a criminal history they are advocating for a better society whether they know it or not. Humans are flawed, and if we want a better society we must start giving people a chance. It requires a mindset shift but it is possible. Reframing how we view and work alongside those that have criminal convictions is key to creating positive change for us all.
* Emmaline Pickering-Martin is a Māmā, social commentator and writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau. She holds degrees in Health Sciences, Education, a Masters in Pacific Studies and is currently working on her PhD. She is the Pacific Media Advisor for Waipapa Taumata Rau and Policy and Advocacy Lead for E Tipu E Rea Whānau Services.