Study: Why do so many Māori end up behind bars?

10:34 pm on 4 October 2018

Why do so many Māori end up behind bars?

That was the question put to 900 Māori participants in a new study, of which 90 percent believed structural racism was to blame.

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Photo: RNZ/Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Black Power member Eugene Ryder agreed.

He was a victim of state abuse, a gang prospect at 15, and served a prison sentence for robbing a bank in his early adulthood.

He said at every stage in his early life he could see how racism played a part in his pathway to prison.

"Right from primary school and then from there when I went into the state system as a ward of the state I experienced even more there where Māori were seen even within those systems as second-class," he said.

"Right throughout my life and my upbringing that's all I experienced and the scary thing is, some of the people portraying the racist behaviour didn't realise that that was wrong and they were comfortable with that happening."

Māori make up 16 percent of the overall population, but represent 51 percent of prisoners - and for women that increases to two-thirds of prisoners.

The They're Our Whānau report is the work of activist group Action Station and the University of Otago. They reached out to iwi and hapū groups, and surveyed people to see what Māori thought about the justice system.

It found structural racism, intergenerational trauma and colonisation were the most common answers when participants were asked why they thought Māori were disproportionately represented in prison.

Action Station director Laura O'Connell Rapira said the findings were deeply moving.

"What I experience reading through all of the responses we got from the survey participants was actually these are real people, these aren't statistics on a report," she said.

"For every single person that is in our prisons right now there is at least one whānau that is affected by this."

Prisons did not exist before settlers arrived in New Zealand, but they were quickly erected following the establishment of British law.

Ms Rapira said the systemic racism and oppression of Māori that followed had largely contributed to what she called New Zealand's "justice crisis".

"In order to fix our justice crisis, we actually need to look at economic deprivation in Māori communities and that, again, comes back to our colonial history.

"Māori land was taken away and with the loss of that economic power it has pushed people into modes of survival, and those modes of survival, those acts of crime, are now punished by our justice system."

Awatea Mita was incarcerated in 2013, and spent just under two years in prison.

As the daughter of indigenous rights activist Merata Mita, she said facing racism was a common experience growing up.

"We had negative childhood interactions with criminal justice system actors such as the police," she said.

"Our family, because of my mother's political activism - mainly through the '81 Spirngbok Tour - we were targeted by police so it was very overt."

The survey found most people thought greater whānau support, higher incomes, and connected communities could help reduce incarceration rates.

Ms Mita, who now works with ex-inmates to re-integrate them into society, said Māori perspectives to improving the justice system needed to be heard.

"The great hope of the future of having this report is that we can, Māori and Pākehā, in confirmation of our Treaty-partner relationship, listen to one another and support one another as we work together to reduce the harm caused by our criminal justice system."

The research has come after the appointment of a Ministry of Justice working group, set up by the government to improve the justice system.

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