Looking After Our Patch

Locking up gang members makes them stronger

by Denis O’Reilly

I cracked up when I heard Wainuiomata indigene Trevor Mallard complain that the people involved in his kainga’s misconceived ‘makutu lifting’ tragedy weren’t going to jail after a manslaughter conviction, ‘because they were Maori’. Crikey, it’s usually the other way round.

Former Police Commissioner Peter Doone revealed in research he undertook some years back for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, that we apprehend, arrest, convict and imprison Maori New Zealanders at a ratio of 3:1 as compared to other New Zealanders. Trev has played his own hand in creating this reality as an executive member of a Labour led Government that locked up more Maori than any other previous administration in this beloved land.

Phil Goff once triumphantly announced to Parliament that his Government had increased the prison population by over 70% (half of whom statistically would have been Maori). Trev and Phil are not lone figures in pandering to a populist viewpoint: something really gets under the skin of Pakeha New Zealand when our brown fellow citizens misbehave, disobey, or want to do things in their own ‘special’ way. Jimmy Baxter used to ascribe this to ‘the crime of being a Maori.’

In an excellent example of ducks being lined up, Mallard’s comments received enthusiastic support not only from the Sensible Sentencing Trust, who themselves have successfully fostered alarm about ‘Maori’ crime ( and sponsored campaigns that created the acceptance of mass incarceration ) but also from reputedly left wing commentator Chris Trotter. Trotter consistently laments the substitution of class consciousness for cultural consciousness – and harrumphs about Maori being treated as ‘special New Zealanders’ with the rest of us being condemned to an implied second class status. Give me a break Chris. Look at the stats.

It is not unreasonable to interpret the racial skew of the prison muster as a measure of what, implicitly, appears to be institutionalised racism. Moreover, Maori are consistently over represented as ‘victims of crime’ in the statistics provided in consecutive ‘MSD Social Reports’. So not are only Maori communities more offended against – they also suffer the impact of the disproportionate imprisonment of their members, particularly their young men, often labelled as being ‘gang members’.

In this piece, I’d like to probe the interface between prisons and Maori gangs, discuss the self-serving and self-perpetuating construct that has become the New Zealand Prison Industrial Complex, and the perverse outcomes of our current criminal justice policies in that our prisons breed gangs, and foster gang activity. I also want to consider possible ways forward.

Let me start by declaring my interests. I am a life member of the Black Power, a so-called Maori gang. I joined the Wellington Black Power in 1972 because of my personal social justice agenda. I reject the proposition that I am a member of an organised criminal group. Other than being in holding cells I have never been imprisoned although I admit I have broken the law and have incurred convictions. So, to New Zealand Maori gangs and Maori in New Zealand prisons:

“Prisons are a breeding ground for gang activity enforced by the Justice system and regulated by prison population”

My Maori mate, who I quote above, was a member of a major gang, and a highly influential figure in any jail in which he was incarcerated over his twenty-two years of imprisonment. When I took the late Dr Ian Prior to first meet him – near the end of a 13-year lag – the Doc asked him “what do you do here?” The brother answered, “I run the place”.

He wasn’t being smartarse but, rather, acknowledging the reality that prisons contain people and people create their own social realities regardless of the circumstances. What he calls the ‘regulation’ of the interpersonal relationships and social conduct within the institution is as important an ingredient to the management of the place as the concrete walls, steel grills, and organisational systems that constitute the prison.

Regardless of the Department of Correction’s policy that they will not recognise gang structures, the pragmatics of prison management mean that senior staff will establish a working relationship with whoever rules the roost. Sometimes prison staff members use the institutional power of one gang to punish a member of another gang that they may be having difficulty with. It may be as simple a device as simply putting them into a block dominated by members of another crew, to be subject to bashings and intimidation.

It is an interesting proposition that my mate makes: that our prisons are a breeding ground for gang activity. The intent of, and belief behind, what has in reality been about a decade long ‘crack down’ on gangs, is that if you lock the members up for long enough you will crush the gang and stifle gang activity. Apparently not.

We need a rethink. Not just about the efficacy of current policy, but also the improved situation we are trying to create. If we want people to rehabilitate and rejoin society as contributing citizens do we want to subject them to a regime of imprisonment that has the opposite outcome?

For a start, it’s important to recognise that gangs aren’t indigenous to New Zealand. You wouldn’t think so though. We are increasingly labelling and criminalising groups of the young, poor, and indigenous population. We use imported gang terms and metaphors to describe what are, essentially, instinctual social clusters of Maori and other Polynesian youth.

I’m not saying Maori gangs are a good thing. In fact, in my observation and experience they end up being pools of misapplied intellect and self defeating behaviours. After 37 years of involvement I can confirm for you that being in a gang – just like being in jail – is a waste of time and potential. And, equally, that very experience has confirmed for me that there is incredible talent and potential amongst their number: intelligence; leadership; courage; and, for many, distinguished whakapapa.

My thesis is that – rather than suppression – it is much better to apply strategies that help refocus these energies, and to enable this fantastic potential to be expressed within the context of tribe and whanau. In the meantime we need to accept that these tribe-like clusters of ‘tribeless’ young people are a recurrent modern day feature of urbanisation and global forces.

Like didymo and P, gangs result from our being part of a dynamic world. They are a reality, and we better figure out sustainable ways to manage them. Of didymo, one of my mentors, Jim Anderton, used to put the dilemma like this: there is a chemical that could be used to treat and kill didymo. We could be rid of it. The only consequence is though that we would have to kill every other living thing in the rivers as well.

And it’s a bit like that with our approach to our indigenous young people during their time of passage. Not every new cluster or outbreak of bad behaviour is necessarily an instance of organised crime. In our attempt to curb unacceptable behaviours, we end up applying solutions that simply end up killing the potential of those we are dealing with.

Just as in the case of some of our nation’s early colonial houses, which were designed by English architects who failed to factor in the hemispheric differences in the orientation of the sites, we fail to understand what it is we are actually dealing with when we attempt to manage clusters of Maori and other Polynesian youth by suppression and imprisonment. Like the architects who didn’t take account of where the sun rises and shines, we will reap unexpected consequences, dark and shade where we really require light.

The current Government has inherited the legacy of a burgeoning prison muster and the increasing budgetary demands that will follow it. Because of the political immunity gifted by the public’s current lust for punishment the Nats have seized the opportunity to implement a little slice of their neo-liberal agenda by way of privatisation of prisons. This is being done in the name of efficiency and/or ‘Kaupapa Maori’ considerations promoted by some tribal leaders and the Maori Party.

I think there is fuzzy thinking on the part of the Maori Party as regards privatisation of prisons. When you look at their korero what they are really talking about is what the late Justice Sir Clinton Roper once wisely and I think accurately described as ‘habilitation’. He pointed out that many prisoners hadn’t even got to stage one in the process of personal development: it was a matter of a blank canvass rather than a touch up. In any case we are referring to the healing or reformative part of the prisoner’s sentence.

The other aspect, the ‘humane incarceration’, the ‘punishment’ part of the process is where the real focus of the drive to privatisation sits. Let’s face it; if you are of a mind to do so, you can run a prison like a kennel. Personally I think it is only the State that should have the right to incarcerate. Punish if we must, to calm public fears or sense of outrage, but let’s be clear that we are delivering retribution when we are dishing it out. Provide activities as an intelligent function of sound prison management, but don’t dress it up as ‘rehab’, or imply any developmental or therapeutic aspirations.

If we want to restore and heal a prisoner – which morally, socially, is what we must be prepared to do – we can’t do it in a suppressive and retributive environment. I think it is this latter ‘restorative’ aspect that ‘Maori penal system’ advocates are really after. The healing aspect of a sentence could absolutely be delivered by ‘private’ or tribal suppliers, even with firm orders from the Court as regards participation and compliance, just in the same way as Maori health and Maori education providers already successfully provide services.

There is little doubt our current situation with Maori gangs, Maori in prisons, and prisons overall, is unsustainable. The projections are even worse with the comparative Maori rate continuing to rise. When confronting a social problematic, it’s important to ask, “Who benefits from the status quo?”

One explanation might be contained in the written history of the New Zealand Police, “Policing the Colonial Frontier”. As I read it, the very formation of the New Zealand Police was driven by a gang problem – gangs of Pakeha sealers and whalers who were causing mayhem amongst Maori communities and threatening the entente between the tribes and the emergent settler state.

From these roots a whole criminal justice industrial complex has been spawned, and it has developed a symbiotic relationship with gangs, especially Maori gangs – in that gangs provide the rationale for more and more resources. In a familiar colonial twist, the very communities the New Zealand Police were originally formed to protect have now become the primary focus of their suppressive efforts.

I believe that the ongoing commodification of crime, implicit in the intended privatisation of prisons, simply ensures an ongoing gang problem in Aotearoa. The new ‘crack down on gangs’ enabled by Section 98A of the Crimes Act will impose penalties of up to five years for participation in a so called ‘organised criminal group’ – which term is being applied to gangs – and will make membership of a gang an aggravating factor in the commission of a crime. This will increase the number in prison of those deemed to be a gang member, and they will be serving longer sentences.

In turn, this sets up a cycle of its own – represented by a high rate of recidivism, and a revolving inmate population. So, perversely, the efforts of our legislators are likely to contribute to the very conditions that not only promote committed gang membership, but also gang activity. Where there are concentrated populations of gang members in a prison it increases the opportunities to create cohesion and gang structure within the institution itself. A New Zealand example is in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when a large influx of gang members came into the prisons. Authorities shifted all the Mongrel Mob into D Block at Paremoremo. The prison culture transformed to that of the predominant gang.

If we want a glimpse of the future that is likely from our current trajectory – as regards the role gangs play in prisons – then look to North America, from where we seem to take our criminal justice sector cues in any case. There will be increased intimidation of other inmates, and increased actual assaults on prison wardens and other inmates. The predominant gang will run the contraband and in some instances run criminal ventures from the prison.

We may have already seen that here in Aotearoa with the current cases involving P import and distribution rings allegedly being run out of Paremoremo and Rimutaka prisons. In fact the inaugural P epidemic is said to have had its genesis in Paremoremo, when local gangsters hooked up with Asian crims.

Our current approach ensures that prison is a fertile recruitment place for the recruitment of gang members. An individual perhaps on the periphery of the gang outside the prison is likely to become a really committed member over the course of their sentence. Another, perhaps in only for a short sentence may be quickly influenced or intimidated to affiliate with whichever gang has most influence at the time. Double bunking will increase the likelihood. Here’s a quote from ‘Shortone’ a Maori gang member currently serving time:

“Jail is the prime place for finding scared vulnerable inmates to become the next generation gang members. If you can’t handle yourself then the next best thing to assure that you feel safe is to join a gang. Everybody knows that the mob overpopulate the jails. Can’t beat them, join them. I feel sorry 4 the vulnerable ones sent to jail for drink driving, released as a traumatised mentally disturbed gang member with an armed robbery job up his sleeve on account of orders from his patch member. Let the systematic cycle continue”
‘Shortone’ – Current Maori gang member prisoner

Shortone backs up what’s been said about ‘recruitment’, and his description of the traumatised prisoner brings another reality. Prison life is intense with high concentrations of people with severe pathologies and mental illness. American prison reformist Sunny Swhartz calls prisons ‘monster factories’. Just surviving can not only lead to offending inside, with a subsequent increase in sentence, but turn previously non-violent individuals into very violent people.

The pressure to comply with orders can be exerted not only within the prison but outside it too: on partners, family and friends. Because of differing categories of prison due to their security status, prisoners may end up being incarcerated at institutions away from their own area. In many cases partners, family, and friends may move to the particular town housing the prison. If the prisoners are gang members then this may mean different and new gangs settling in the area – this is the situation in Wanganui – and it has a knock-on effect.

On one hand it may mean upsetting the local ‘balance of street power’ and may lead to strife on the street, hardly conducive to community safety. The children of the gang member prisoners will end up going to local schools, invariably ending up alongside the children of prison staff. The conditions for influence further up the track begin to be established. On release a prisoner is going to go to where they are welcome. If the gang was a default whanau for the individual before prison, or became one in prison, then it’s likely to be the point of contact on return to the community, regardless of non-association conditions. That in turns sets up breaches of bail conditions and the cycle is away again.

In late 2007 Ombudsman Mel Smith concluded that the New Zealand criminal justice sector was in such a mess that it merited a Royal Commission to sort it out. I’ve heard the call for a Royal Commission into gangs from Greg O’Connor of the Police Association, and former Labour Govt Police Minister Annette King said, prior to the election that if Labour were back in power it would do just that.

The Prime Minister is about to get on the warpath about P. In an open letter to him, broadcaster and frustrated dad Paul Holmes, has said that the PM needs to come down hard on the gangs as part of beating P.

My thought is that maybe we should attempt to cover all these interwoven bases, Gangs, P, Prisons, by undertaking some form of intelligent enquiry to sort out facts from fiction and to develop answers that work – actually sensible sentences. We cranked up the punishment tariff for P, re-grading the substance from Class B to Class A and setting sentences for supply or manufacture as high as life imprisonment without a noticeable reduction in demand or supply.

It must be apparent to even the most retributive of politicians and lobbyists that the crush ‘em and crate ‘em approach seems set only to escalate the problem. Experience to date suggests that the harder society plays the more gang members enjoy the game. The evidence also seems to be that the more we lock gang members up the more gangs will consolidate and grow.

I put aside the cynical conspiracy theory that the current policies are a deliberate formula designed to perpetuate the prison industrial complex. I’d like to think that at the nation’s heart there is a desire for every citizen to fulfil their potential and that includes Maori citizens. If that is the case then we need to reframe the whole proposition around our approach to P, to Maori Gangs and to Prisons.

For a start let’s roll with a bit of upside down thinking. For instance the notion of privatisation is underpinned by concepts of market efficiency and the push and pull therein. At the moment the Department of Corrections holds as its goal ‘Improving Public Safety’ and its going to do that by ensuring sentence compliance and by the ‘Reduction of Re-offending’.

Now it may be that the organisation tracks and rewards its people for ensuring sentence compliance, but I am unaware of any incentivisation for ‘Reducing Re-offending’. I assume the risk for re-offending occurs when the prisoner is released and consequently it is the critical phase as regards community safety.

But we don’t reward the troops for success at this point. It costs around $100,000 per annum to keep a prisoner in humane conditions and under lock and key. It’s hard to get a current grip on the current rate of recidivism but it seems that some 70% of prisoners will re-offend within five years of release.

What would happen if Corrections was prepared to do a deal with prison staff and give them a share in the savings if they could get better outcomes. E hika! The screws would behave as a father to a son! Even further, what if Corrections actually utilised the organisational self-regulation of gangs and paid gang members not to commit crime? Pay them to study. Pay them to do positive activities. We could slash both crime rates and the negative spend on prisons overnight!

Some forty years ago the late Alan Nixon, drew attention to the relationship between Maori educational under-achievement and Maori over-representation in the crime stats. That is even more apparent today: some 50% of Maori boys leave school without qualifications and too many of this group end up in prison. Even if it took some years to develop policies that split the punishment and habilitation phases of a sentence, in the meantime we could use prison time to facilitate intense education and help rewire thinking by assisting prisoners apply their intellect in pro-social ways.

NZQA indexed programmes and NCEA linked activities can be used to help prisoners the credits vital to their being able to undertake apprenticeships or go on to further education. Former Wellingtonian, now New Yorker, John Wareham has developed a process based on his existentialist philosophies whereby he helps inmates at Rykers Island prison confront themselves and ‘reconstruct’.

It is powerful stuff, and his process is outlined in his book “How to Break Out of Prison”. Hilariously when he went to give a presentation to inmates at Waikeria Prison he was denied access because of the proposition contained in the name of his book. The gain was though that John ended up working with me in a project with the leadership of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power gangs, and the impact of his approach was transformational. We could do with his input.

Another approach – perhaps at the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum – is the approach championed by Kim Workman and already being delivered by ‘faith-based units’. The programmes in these units provide links with communities and ongoing practical and prayerful support for their inmate during and after release. They have had their share of successful outcomes.

A further and current option is provided by the Kaupapa Maori units of some prisons. In this regard and at this point I’ve got to say that the “two facedness” of Corrections knows no bounds. I don’t mean that the Department deliberately lies, but, hell, compare the reality with the promise. Corrections lists as its ‘Kaupapa’ “Kotahi ano te kaupapa; ko te oranga o te iwi” This is translated as “There is only one purpose to our work; it is the wellness and wellbeing of the people.” Damn, that’s pretty cynical.

The schizophrenia between espoused policy and actual delivery is that in Corrections’ ‘Integrated Offender Management System’ is that being Maori is listed as being a criminogenic factor – that is something that is a predisposition to offending and that must be corrected. If however one sees Maori culture as an advantage, there are some advantages for dealing with Maori gang members by utilising tikanga based processes. It is a reasonable supposition that ‘acculturation’ and reconnection with one’s self and whanau through whakapapa will foster social inclusion and help provide an identity beyond and above the gang.

Consider too that a high percentage of prisoners are afflicted by mental illness and addictions. The prison sentence could provide an opportunity. It could provide a high degree of institutional care and therapy with increased chances of wellness on release and improved likelihood of being a functional member of society and a contributing citizen and taxpayer. I acknowledge and support the doubling of the capacity for addiction treatment recently initiated by the Government. That’s a move in the right direction. But, upside down or not, more fresh thinking is required.

The well balanced and well researched input provided by Kim Workman and the Rethinking Punishment movement – and the considered reflections of Sian Elias as expressed in her recent ‘Shirley Smith Address’ – all contribute to the necessary national dialogue, despite the hosing down by those entrenched in opinion or enriched by the status quo.

In addition there’s movement at the flax roots, fostered in no small measure by Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples. Sharples has managed to engage street leaders as well as tribal leaders in resolving gang street violence and related offending, and he has built a platform for Maori designed and Maori delivered interventions. Its good stuff, but its not dealing with the really substantive policy issues implicit in the issues I’ve been discussing.

From where I sit, regardless of the concerns I have noted, I see a real opportunity for a change for the good. When we’re talking about Maori gangs consider that some of them have their origins in the last phase of the rural migration. For the first time, as regards age structure, the demography of the Maori gang population is likely to reflect that of the Maori population overall. In other words there are older, and perhaps wiser, heads around in the Maori gang scene. Some gang leaders say ‘we aren’t a gang, we’re a whanau’ or ‘we’re a hapu’ and so they are. The real issue they have to deal with is how that whanau behaves, how it cares for its members, and how it impacts on other whanau and the community at large.

In turn the challenge for our politicians, policy makers and the public at large is to put rhetoric and prejudice to the side and have the courage to undertake an intelligent and well informed review of the matters I have shared. – by Denis O’Reilly, Pa Waiohiki

1 Comment on Looking After Our Patch

  1. Well prisons are the end result of crime enforcement in New Zealand and around the world. Where else can you put someone who not only broke the law but may put society at risk? The prison environment serves as a deterrent for those who choose to ignore societies laws. While that sounds cold and heartless, it is how societies react when someone or group of people decide to step outside the rules for whatever reason they might have. There is no other solution unfortunately unless people have a magic wand that makes everyone and everything wonderful and at peace. The human mind is such that it can be used for good or bad. At the same time, the human family seek ways to prevent one member or a group of members from destroying what is essentially a peaceful not perfect society.

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