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Waikeria prison protest prompts calls for rethink of prison reform strategy, Hōkai Rangi

When nearly 20 prisoners stormed the roof of Waikeria Prison's high-security unit last Wednesday, lighting mattresses on fire and causing extensive damage, they had a piece of government policy firmly within their crosshairs: Hōkai Rangi.

Flames at Waikeria Prison, New Year's Day. Source: Supplied

By Mackenzie Smith of rnz.co.nz

The six-day standoff, in which much of a high-security facility was destroyed by fire, ended on Sunday when the 16 prisoners surrendered.

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The Corrections Minister said it was his view the “reasons for their actions” was not due to the conditions at the prison. Source: 1 NEWS

However, the protest at Waikeria has prompted fresh scrutiny of Hōkai Rangi, the government's prison reform strategy. Hōkai Rangi aims to cut the number of Māori in prison from 52 per cent down to 16 - in line with the overall Māori population. (It has set a five-year target of a 10 per cent reduction).

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During the protest, one prisoner involved told RNZ: "We hear about this Hōkai Rangi strategy but we don't see it. There is no programme. There is no rehabilitation. It's lock us up, put you in a yard full of gang members and then let you out. And they expect us to change."

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Following the Waikeria prisoners' surrender, Minister for Corrections Kelvin Davis defended Hōkai Rangi, saying it had been delayed by Covid-19. He added New Zealand's prison population had reduced by 20 per cent since March 2018.

However, experts say the unrest was the result of a failure by government to address systemic racism across society.

"The only way that you really get it [the prison population] down is an all-of-society approach, and it does mean addressing real harm, and some of those harms are historical, within society," said Tracey McIntosh, a professor of indigenous studies at Auckland University.

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"If you do address these things, then everyone benefits."

Some of the protesting prisoners told media they were making a stand against a lack of basic supplies and clean drinking water, as well as cramped conditions. Corrections say they received no formal complaints from the prisoners.

At times, the Hōkai Rangi strategy document exudes a similar confidence. One section claims: "No-one will be further harmed or traumatised by their experiences with us." However, it does acknowledge that Corrections is "an environment where direct and structural racism routinely exists".

The Waikeria group, who were predominantly Māori, said they had also been let down by a wider system: one recalled a tough upbringing in state custody.

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Dr McIntosh described this feeling as one of "systemic frustration".

"It's not a rational response to riot, particularly within institutions where coercive control is the main mechanism of operation, so it doesn't make sense. But it does make sense if you feel that you have no other avenues where you can actually get people to listen, to understand."

Government reviews into the Waikeria standoff are underway, including one by the Office of the Inspectorate that will examine potential systemic causes. It is not yet clear whether any will examine the scope or effectiveness of Hōkai Rangi.

While Hōkai Rangi is a Corrections-led strategy, it has several iwi partners.

For example, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Maniapoto are assisting a rebuild of Waikeria Prison slated for completion in 2022.

Maniapoto Māori Trust Board chair Keith Ikin said he could understand if some prisoners didn't see value in Hōkai Rangi, but that it was about bringing about important change.

"There is a need to change the system because the system is not working," he said.

A community worker and prisoner advocate, Lynton Conway, said he hoped the Waikeria protest would start a national conversation.

"I know from experience in all these prisons is injustices really, [they] have got to be faced. Although we don't like to see the destruction that's happened, it's highlighting a problem which is right across many prisons in different ways."