Iwi-driven solutions to keep wāhine Māori out of prison

By Iulia Leilua

Māori women make up 62 percent of the inmates at Auckland Women's Prison and the number is rising.   Many will re-offend and now there's a call for whānau, hāpu and iwi to increase initiatives to stop the tide of Māori women being locked up.

The country’s largest women’s prison says more jobs and better education are needed to keep women out of jail.  The last two years have seen a steady increase in Māori women being incarcerated at Auckland Regional Women’s Prison Facility (ARWCF). 

Half of female prisoners in Aotearoa suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and despite community rehabilitation programmes, many are likely to re-offend.  It’s a worrying trend that prison officials and Māori advocates say requires more whānau, hapū and iwi-driven solutions.

ARWCF Assistant Director Alison Fowlie says the prison is working to create relationships in the Māori community to help women transition successfully to the outside.

“We’ve got a certain role to play in that but we can’t do that without support from the likes of Ngāti Porou, who were in last week,” says Fowlie, “Those pivot points are really critical to ensuring that we’re doing those things like reducing reoffending and breaking that cycle."

Recently the prison invited a group of influential Māori women to meet some of the prisoners. 

Manuhiri included Ikaroa Rāwhiti MP Meka Whaitiri, Māori Women's Welfare League president Prue Kapua and her partner, Manurewa MP Louisa Wall, TV presenter and former Silver Fern Jenny May Clarkson, historian, author and Kingitanga stalwart, Mamae Takerei and Māori Responsiveness Adviser Sergeant Whiti Timutimu, based at Te Runanganui ō Ngati Porou in Gisborne.

Many prisoners will be released into Whaitiri’s electorate.  She’s been working with Sergeant Timutimu on finding permanent homes for prisoners to transition to.

“She put the proposal out, her commanders, the police supported it,” says Whaitiri, “I thought it was a fantastic idea and arranged a meeting between her and the ministers of police and housing.  They all thought it was a wonderful idea so now we’re just waiting for the outcome of those engagements so we can actually have permanent homes for when Māori women from Ngāti Porou come home from prison.”

ARWCF has a total capacity of 462 women, but the numbers differ every day depending on movements of prisoners and their releases. 

Currently the female population of the prison varies between 425 – 450 women.