In New Zealand’s prisons, Māori women’s lives don’t matter

#NativeLivesMatter. Native women’s lives matter. Tell that to New Zealand Aotearoa. The island nation increasingly uses both names. Aotearoa, the Māori name, is being used with greater frequency. That may be so, but at the same time, the prisons of that island nation are overwhelmingly Māori, and in particular Māori women, and the State doesn’t care.

The active lack of concern for Māori women is shown in the new Te Tirohanga, or Focus, program in the prisons, a new program based on Māori principles: “With 8,500 prisoners among a national population of 4.5 million, New Zealand ranks as one of the highest jailers in the developed world. But as has been repeatedly highlighted in reports by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Māori component is staggering. While those who identify as Māori make up about 15% of the New Zealand population, the corresponding figure behind bars is more than 50%. Among women, for whom there is no Te Tirohanga option, it is higher still, at 60%.”

60 percent of the women in prison in New Zealand are Māori, and for them, there is no Te Tirohanga option. Why are Māori women excluded from this option?

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has long noted the dire mathematics of New Zealand’s prisons. In its 2014 report, the Working Group identified five areas of concern: over-incarceration; detention of Māori; detention of refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants; detention of persons with mental or intellectual disabilities; detention of children and young persons. The only people not over incarcerated are White adults not living with mental or intellectual disabilities. For Māori women, however, the situation is dire: “The over-representation of Māori in the prison population poses a significant challenge as recognised in New Zealand’s National Report to the 2014 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the Human Rights Council. Māori make up more than 50 per cent of the prison population while Māori comprise some 15 per cent of the population of New Zealand. In the case of Maõri women, they account for more than 65 per cent of the prison population … The Working Group recalls that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Human Rights Committee and, in two reports, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, have recommended that New Zealand increase its efforts to prevent the discrimination against Māori in the administration of justice. Particular concerns have been raised in relation to the overrepresentation of Māori women.”

Particular concerns have been raised in relation to the overrepresentation of Māori women. How has the State responded? For Māori women, there is no Te Tirohanga option. In its most recent Census Report, the New Zealand government includes prison populations under Living outside the norm: An analysis of people living in temporary and communal dwellings. Too often, prisons come up as “outside the norm”, but for Māori women, it’s exactly the opposite. Prison is the norm, and, for prisons, Māori women are the norm. Neil Campbell, the director of Māori for the New Zealand Aotearoa Department of Corrections looks at the Te Tirohanga program and wonders, “If this is such a great program, why are we limiting it to the five whare [units]? Why aren’t we running it in the community? Why don’t women have access to it?” Why don’t Māori women have access to it? Because, for the State, Māori women’s lives don’t matter.

(Photo Credit: New Zealand Department of Corrections)