Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 52 (September 1965)
– 21 –

Helping Our Own

Recently in ‘Te Ao Hou’ there has been some discussion about the problems faced by prisoners, in particular Maori prisoners. As a member of the Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society in Wellington, I have had the privilege of sharing in the efforts of many exprisoners, Maori and Pakeha, to cope with the problems that they face upon their release. The Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society is a voluntary organisation, with branches all over the country, whose members regularly visit people during their imprisonment and do everything they can to assist them upon their release.

Maori Help Badly Needed

Believe me, ex-prisoners attempting to rehabilitate themselves have real problems, and sometimes the right kind of understanding and assistance can make all the difference to the success of their efforts. Maori prisoners badly need the support of their own people, and the Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society would welcome more voluntary, part-time assistance by Maoris interested in acting as prison visitors. At present there are comparatively few of us who are doing this work.

Attitudes Often Expressed

In this article I would like to mention several matters arising from an interview with a Maori recently released from prison. Some of his comments indicate perhaps the feelings and attitudes of other people who have had similar experiences. Permission to publish his comments was obtained, and the more intimate details about his family and background are not given here.

Like so many others in a similar situation, he had had a very disturbed and unsettled family background.

In the past his outlook was to leave tomorrow to look after itself. Drinking, frequent and heavy, occupied much of his leisure time.

On his initial sentence to prison he was weak and frightened. The effect of the prison system was to harden him; as he put it, he ‘went in like a chicken and came out like a rooster’.

In custody Maoris often (though not invariably) form a group or sub-culture of their own, so much so that on isolated occasions, if you hit one Maori you hit the lot. A positive function of such a group is to give expression to traditional values such as togetherness, sharing, and therapeutic conversation.

For this reason many Maoris would welcome the opportunity of group discussions with a Maori prison visitor.

On discharge the ideal is to isolate oneself from other ex-inmates. This is done in individual cases. However for a great number group identification and support is an apparent need, and in the cities ex-prisoners tend to congregate at specific places, and not infrequently share communal flats.

Prison has its obvious disadvantages, but it does provide a roof over one's head, three square meals a day and security of a sort. For some people there may therefore, if all else fails, be the temptation to regard it as a kind of home.

Many Maoris realise that they need help with accommodation and employment on discharge, but hesitate to ask for assistance. In some cases they would like those interested in their welfare to believe that they have arrangements in hand, when for reasons of shyness, independence, pride and communication difficulties, this is not the case.

One would not necessarily approve of some of these comments, but I feel that they should be taken into account, for as a prison visitor I have often heard similar opinions expressed by Maori inmates and former inmates.

Greater Efforts Necessary

As I write this, the rioting at Mt Eden has just come to an end. Our Wellington newspapers have brought home to us in a very realistic way the proportion of our people in

– 22 –

prison, for they published a number of close-up photographs of Maori and Pakeha prisoners, including some of those who dissociated themselves from the difficult element at Mt Eden. (Nor did they obscure the faces of the people in the photographs, some of whom were readily recognisable. This in my opinion was very unethical, and could add to the bitterness of those affected.)

Better Use of Community Resources

It seems that the general feeling of the public is that ‘we should get tougher’. While it may be that stronger measures are needed for the worst cases, surely the time has come to classify prisoners more carefully, to ensure that the young, and others who may be salvaged, are not thrown in among the toughest cases. We should also greatly expand the use made of psychiatric and psychological services, and the resources offered by voluntary organisations, including the churches. I consider that this is a matter in which both the Government and the community need to accept a more positive and humane role.

We Should Do Our Part

And we as Maoris should accept the challenge to be of greater assistance to our own people when they are in prison, and when they are discharged. This can best be done by joining the Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society.

The events at Mt Eden and Paparua indicate that greater efforts are needed. At such a moment of confusion, destruction and reconstruction, personally I find solace and inspiration in a saying my elders taught me in my childhood at Parihaka Pa, Taranaki:

‘Me aroha te tangata ki te tangata.’