Change manager

By Phil Taylor

Sam Chapman is a big man in the way Billy T James was. Big of stature and of character. Where James did humour wrapped in warmth, Chapman does warmth wrapped in logic and spiced with a pinch of irony.

It's unlikely you will know his name. What little publicity he's had has been about his association with feared criminals. It was in that context I interviewed Chapman five years ago for a story about Mark Stephens. You may know Stephens as the Parnell Panther, the sobriquet a Sunday paper gave him.

In 2001, Stephens lived with his law student partner in a pleasant North Shore home, raising a pre-schooler, making up for lost time with a teenager daughter. He'd been out of prison a decade. Now, it's 15 years; the student is a working lawyer and they are married.

When Stephens was released from jail in 1992 he'd spent all but 18 months of the preceding 20 years in prison. He's not been back, and for that he heaps credit on Chapman.

On his release from prison, Stephens - who had been convicted of the rape of one woman and brutal attack of another - moved into the Chapman family home with Sam, wife Thelma, a son and a daughter who was then aged 13.

It was an act of trust Stephens could hardly comprehend. "He's too much," Stephens said of his mentor. Chapman, in turn, described Stephens' response as "like a flower that opens to the sunlight".

Chapman was recently in the news for his role in helping Roy Dunn, president of the Notorious chapter of the Mongrel Mob. Only two people in his chapter have been to prison, 60 Minutes reported, since Dunn started trying to change nine years ago. It was through Stephens that Dunn came to Chapman.

Chapman understands the contempt society has for criminals and accepts the absolute necessity of prisons but says jails are not a solution.

A recidivism rate of more than two-thirds and re-imprisonment running at 30 per cent within two years of release are evidence of that.

"When you lock someone away in that kind of environment, you create the monster that you set free again.

"We didn't come out of our mother's womb designed to be bad. We are designed to be loved, be valued, to have a place where we can stand and contribute. A lot of these guys have not known that." It's not a universally popular notion, acknowledges Chapman, fleshy hands clasped across his middle, "but it's a fact".

What sort of person is this softly spoken man who has no qualms about shedding tears in the presence of patched gang members for whom smothering emotion is a matter of misplaced mana as well as a defence?

The hills, rivers and lakes of Turangi - before skiing and boating made it into the town of today - was the landscape of his upbringing. Mum, dad, a sister and a band of brothers made a family of 12.

His genealogy? "Genuine Kiwi," he says. "Maori and Pakeha." Tuwharetoa on his maternal side, Ngati Porou on his Dad's, with "English, Welsh and a bit of Jewish in there too". His father Sonny worked at the local hydro project and as a lineman for the power company. Chapman looks back on "a strong family home [that was] not without its struggles and problems". Sonny and Mary Chapman weren't church people but they were God-fearing.

"They held on to their values and beliefs and they passed them on.

"Manaakitanga and Whakawhanaungatanga; all those Maori values of whanau, of honour and respect and caring for one another."

He and wife Thelma apply the same principles to Awhi Community Development, their initiative that includes an early childhood centre, whanau centre, "home hospitality" and mentoring.

"Awhi means to love, to nurture, to want what is good and right for your family. It's what parents do with their children; that's where the name comes from."

Their work, by choice, consumes their life. They decided, Chapman explains, it was the way they wanted to live. As young Christians doing voluntary work in Porirua, they saw an example of a family using their home to help others. "That's all [this family] had, their home, sharing this idea of hope that we can move from where we are to where we should be, and being there, walking with them."

They still had their day jobs then; Sam as a painter and paperhanger, Thelma as a teacher. "Slowly it became less and less painting and paperhanging and more and more working in the community," says Chapman.

Two years at the Bible College of New Zealand in Henderson added breadth, context and purpose to his spirituality, despite the academic demands initially making for a "freaky" experience for the high-school dropout.

"What is belief? What is faith? Much of that," says Chapman, "is influenced by your own background, so you have a God that size. Mine," he chuckles, "was about the size of Porirua and Turangi."

Chapman pops out such phrases, little affirmations and insights. Here's another: "The heart of the matter is a matter of the heart."

It's as though Chapman can find the good within, no matter how devilish a person's deeds. He sees the hurt child within the staunch gang member but notes there is no hope without sufficient desire to change.

Next, they need to be shown the way.

"That's what I now call the Awhi process, where they create their own mirror, identify the things that have worked in their lives, why they have worked and leverage off that to the next step. That's the process; that's all we have done for 10 years.

"Nobody goes into the future by focusing on failure and yet so much of the [bureaucratic] initiatives focus on failure. They are problem-based initiatives, whereas what we have done is focus on what works - loving your kids works for you and loving your wife works. They have to discover what that looks like."

That's how it was for Dunn, leader of the Notorious chapter. His desire to change - what Chapman calls "The Why" - simply got big enough.

"The intent was already there, and he had his reasons. He had spent most of his life in jail; he hadn't seen his kids when they were born.

"There's a million and one 'hows' in which we can do things but the most important thing is why? Why change when we have lived like this for all these years?"

Almost always, Chapman finds it's family, children. "It's not because they want to keep out of prison. Ugly as that may be, that is not a big enough why to enable them to hang in for the long haul, to get up again when you fall over, to do it without money, to do it without the resources, to believe you can find a way, create a way."

All he has to offer them, Chapman says, is "hope and unconditional love and acceptance". Within Dunn, he believes there was a deep longing for something better and perhaps in the example of Stephens he saw reason for hope.

Stephens, Dunn and a gang member colleague of Dunn's, told their stories recently at a conference in front of an audience that included judges, parliamentarians and bureaucrats.

They felt able to stand before such a group as a measure of their progression, says conference organiser Kim Workman, the former liberal Deputy Secretary of Justice who is now head of the Prison Fellowship. "It's huge progress. Several years ago, you couldn't get within 4m of [Stephens] without him becoming jumpy and agitated."

Workman says the system used in New Zealand to deal with prisoners, particularly at reintegration, can learn from Chapman. Prison programmes are preoccupied with imposing changes to behaviour and thinking, whereas Chapman instinctively understands transformation comes from within, says Workman; that it is about empowering them to change, that it takes time and that there will be setbacks.

Chapman: "I use the example with the guys of a glass of murky water that you can't tip out. How do you sort that out? We can spend the rest of our life looking at the murky water, being angry with it, blaming someone for it - or we can run it under a tap and what flows in will flush out what's there. It's up to them to determine what sort of tap they sit it under."

When Workman was head of New Zealand's prisons, he says that aside from some programmes for sex offenders and alcoholics, he knew that "what we were doing was, really, futile".

Reintegration was a particular weakness, the current wisdom being that if you can get them a job the rest will follow.

Workman believes mentoring of the type Chapman provides is needed.

"None of us are likely to come close to his model because we are not that sort of person but there are lessons there for us all."

Because it is time-consuming and not readily measured, the Chapmans get little government funding - but you won't hear Chapman grumble. After all, one of his sayings is that it's surprising "what a lot a little can do".

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