I have been doing a bit of time lately. Yes, that's jail time.

Last week was my second "lag" inside Waikeria prison trying to get an understanding, from the inside, just why it is our Maori men are ending up inside in ever-increasing numbers.

We all know the statistics. We have had them thrown at us like a turned-down parole hearing and, in both cases, it seems not many - if anyone - cares about either.

We locked up about 6000 men and women in 2002, and this has almost doubled over the past decade with no sign of the stats turning around and walking back down the green mile to freedom, or those inside leaving with the skills needed to navigate the big wide world outside the walls of the prison, that to them life is as simple as "three hots and a cot" (three meals and a bed).


What we don't read about - especially those inside who cannot read - is that there are 25,000 kids who are directly affected by having their dads and a few mums inside a prison somewhere in the land of the locked-up parent.

So I went inside on the back of a recent TV1 documentary, Behind Bars.

Watching this, I knew Nigel Latta had a fistful of answers and it married up with what I had found with the "at-risk youth" we work with before they get to the last-chance cafe and start sliding down the slippery slope of incarceration, toward the Iron Bar Hotel.

Nigel and one of his interviewees, the Department of Correction Commissioner Terry Buffery, were on to something special that resonated with a common thread I have found in working with tamariki over the past 25 years who could not read and write.

To me the answer seemed simple, as it does for many who understand what Sir Apirana Ngata claimed was the answer to Maori winning the battles they face in the future, not with a patu or closed fist, but with "the taiaha of knowledge".

Education was, and still is, in my opinion, the absolute answer to why so many of our Maori men end up in prison.

I have always believed in the taiaha of knowledge and it hit me over the head one day while teaching a class at a local school a few years back.

The knock-out blow came from a little 7-year-old Maori girl, waving her hand in the air demanding attention at a creative reading and writing class I was teaching.

No matter how hard I tried to ignore her she was not going to go away until I listened to her korero that went something like this: "Mr Kapai, Mr Kapai, you teached my Dad how to read."

Astounded by her straight-up, straight-forward statement, my attention was instantly captured.

"Sweetheart, I don't remember your dad, and I can't say I know you. How did this happen?" I inquired.

"Yeah yeah, you know, you came to our class last year and I won the prize of a Kapai book and I took it to my Dad in jail, and my Dad read it every day and if anyone touched my Dad's book he gave them the bash - so, yeah, you teached my dad to read!"

I was speechless and for a "wahanui" like me that is saying something. We all have turning points in our life that some call epiphany and others like me call divine appointments, and that day in that class at Otumoetai Primary School I had one with a 7-year-old girl.

Turns out, if you are a 9-year-old Maori boy and you cannot read and write, you have an 82 per cent chance of ending up in jail, just like this little girl's dad.

So how do we turn the stats around?

For me it is about pouring every resource available into teaching these men how to read, preferably way back before they are 9, and if we miss them, then catch them when they are "at risk youth", and for the third strike, catch them inside before they come out and fall through the illiterate cracks again.

How can we expect these men to reintegrate within society if they can't fill out a form for a benefit, apply for a rent subsidy to live somewhere or an application to learn how to drive?

Is it any wonder that they migrate back to those of similar problems, rather than step up and stay with those who have found the solution - like Nigel Latta, Commissioner Buffery and the little 7-year-old girl who stood up for her dad and taught me a lesson I will never forget.

- broblack@xtra.co.nz

- Tommy Wilson is a best-selling author and local writer.