Minister backs separate prison unit for Maori

By Patrick Gower

A separate Maori prison unit where the inmates go flatting and the focus is on healing is under consideration by the Government.

The "alternative rehabilitation centre" is being promoted by Associate Corrections Minister and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples.

The National Government is open to the concept. Corrections Minister Judith Collins says she is "very keen" if it can be shown to reduce the Maori crime rate.

Dr Sharples wants the 60-bed institution to be located in an urban centre so education and employment opportunities can be provided to Maori prisoners "who are determined to learn, heal and socialise".

He said the institution would still have security measures like other prisons: "There'll be locks on the gates".

Dr Sharples said he had previously referred to the centre as an "alternative prison". It would have fewer jailers and "more healers, teachers, social workers".

Prisoners would have to "earn" their way into the centre by learning to speak Maori, he said.

They would prove themselves by becoming literate if they were not already, getting involved in a community project or charity from inside, and showing good behaviour for four months or more.

Dr Sharples said it would suit prisoners nearing the end of their sentence.

"It could be petty thieves or it could be people who have done major crimes," he said.

The "stand-alone" institution would be run by a runanga or committee involving the local iwi or hapu, the staff and the inmates themselves, who would be involved in day-to-day activities such as setting rosters.

Instead of living in a cell, inmates would live in flats, or shared units, and be able to move around and cook their own meals.

"They would learn the social skills of living with each other rather than being able to hide in a cell."

Dr Sharples said inmates would go through a programme where they healed with their own family, the community and the victim. They would be expected to start preparing for a career.

There was no reason for the public to be concerned that Maori prisoners were getting different treatment.

"When you consider Maori are five times the incarceration rate than others, I think it's got to be a positive thing."

He said there was support for the institution from within Corrections, and he rated chances of National supporting it as "high".

Ms Collins said her ideology in terms of prisons was "doing what works" and she was looking forward to getting more detail from Dr Sharples.

"I'm very keen on it," she said.

"If we can make some real difference in recidivism rates for Maori offending, we're going to make some real difference right across the board because of the 51 per cent of the prisoners who are Maori." Dr Sharples said the centre was a further step onward from the Maori focus units currently in five prisons, which he helped develop 11 years ago.

The success of these units would be shown in a Corrections report due to be released shortly, which found Maori in focus units were 7 per cent less likely to reoffend than those in the general prison population.

Act MP David Garrett, a former legal adviser to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, said the party it would support the proposal.

"If they want to have a go to improve their abysmal recidivism rates, they can try," he said.

MAORI BEHIND BARS

* Of New Zealand's 8247 prisoners, 4188 are Maori - 50.78 per cent.
* There are 300 beds available in five Maori focus units within prisons.
* A report due to be released by Corrections will show Maori in focus units are 7 per cent less likely to reoffend.
* Associate Corrections Minister Pita Sharples wants to build on this with a separate Maori prison institution.

- NZ Herald

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