An iwi leader has lauded a new strategy to reduce the Māori prison population as heroic and brave, but warns it won't succeed if Corrections is left to do it alone.
After a decade without a Māori strategy, Corrections today launched Hōkai Rangi, which aims to eventually reduce the number of Māori in prison from 50 per cent to 16 per cent, proportional to the Māori population.
How the programme success will be measured has yet to be decided, but Corrections chief executive Christine Stevenson said she wanted to see a "decent drop" in the Māori prison population over the next five years.
Under the programme, prisoners will get more visits from whānau and prison staff provided extra training to ensure prisoners are treated with dignity.
Ngāti Kahungunu chairperson Ngahiwi Tomoana said it was "quite a heroic effort from the current minister" and the iwi would be supporting him all the way.
However, Mr Tomoana warned that the drastic prison population drops won't happen if Corrections alone was expected to bring the reduction.
"Corrections are getting the blame for other people's upstream impacts on whānau and especially on inmates," he said.
"If we can intervene at the court stage, at the arrest, apprehend and incarcerate stage ... if we can get into the remand system, because people are waiting 18 months on remand without even a charge, I mean, it is diabolical that this should be happening."
There are currently only five kaupapa Māori programmes in prison, but there will now be a dedicated budget for kaupapa Māori programmes and therapies to be in every single prison.
When Rawiri Waretini-Karena was in prison more than 30 years ago, kaupapa Māori programmes, or units, were unheard of.
That was the impetus for the now Doctor of Indigenous Studies to create his own kaupapa Māori programme, He Kakano Ahau, which he presented at the launch of Hōkai Rangi today.
"A lot of the men there they had no connection to their cultural identity, most couldn't speak their language, they didn't know their culture, they didn't know their heritage," he said.
He has drawn on his personal experience, his studies and 30 years of working in the prison system to help change how Māori inmates think of themselves, and remind them that they are the descendants of chiefs, and within them all is the potential for greatness based on the whakatauki 'E kore au e ngaro, he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea'.
One way this is achieved is prisoners physically embodying their ancestors, or tūpuna.
"We put them in traditional Māori regalia with a moko and then we take photos of them and so what that is they get to connect with their tūpuna, they get to dress in regalia like their tūpuna - it's a guided process and practice back to their identity," he said.
"We want them to see themselves outside of the system or see themselves outside of the person they see when they look in the mirror."
It's through programmes like these that reconnect Māori with their whakapapa, that Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis is hoping will help drop the overall prison population by 30 percent over 15 years.