Involvement in the Howard League meant that the recent Justice Summit held in Wellington was a must-attend occasion and the league sent a delegation of three.

One of our number was a recently released white-collar prisoner, whose insights into the various presentations and speeches was an invaluable way of keeping the other two of us firmly attached to the planet.

The summit was a determined attempt to seek guidance from as many as 600 participants for the Labour-led Government's ambitions in the penal reform space and three senior ministers, Andrew Little (Justice), Stuart Nash (Police) and Kelvin Davis (Corrections) attended for the entire two days.

They made themselves available at all times for anyone to bowl up for a chat or, as I observed often, animated downloads.


There was an intense and intended Maori atmosphere to the whole occasion with an extended powhiri, a majority of speeches prefixed by Te Reo statements and, a first for me, a simultaneous Te Reo-to-English translation service.

At first I thought this Maori emphasis was a bit over the top, however the unvarnished truth is that the penal reform challenge is largely driven by the parlous state in which many of our original Kiwis find themselves in 21st-century Aotearoa.

Though Maori make up just 15 per cent of our population, more than 50 per cent of the male prisoners are Maori and the situation is even worse in the women's jails with more than 60 per cent of inmates now identifying as Maori.

The reality is that without its Maori prisoners, New Zealand would have one of the lowest rates of incarceration in the world.

Kelvin Davis pointed out that his own iwi, the Nga Puhi, was almost certainly the most heavily imprisoned of any indigenous tribe on earth.

It is probably no coincidence that it was the Nga Puhi of Northland who were the first to be forced to cope with the Pakeha invasion we now call colonisation.

I heard many valuable insights during this conference and will be fascinated to see what comes out in the report which will follow.

Over the past seven years of my involvement in the Howard League, I have developed many thoughts about what can be done about Maori incarceration and will condense these in a future column.

It will be some time before the proceedings of this event are gathered up and published but the Howard League took a list of our hopes and distributed it widely amongst the ministers, MPs and any other opinion leader we could button-hole.

First we believe that a structural review of the Corrections Department is overdue.

READ MORE: Mike Williams: Polls apart by some distance so pass me a grain of salt
READ MORE: Mike Williams: What National needs to do to steady the ship
READ MORE: Mike Williams: Why Jim Anderton was important to New Zealand politics


The current structure is a strange amalgam of a military organisation and a government department and it is in many ways not fit for purpose.

It is not clear, for example that the Corrections CEO can instruct individual prison managers, making across-the-organisation initiative difficult.

In our view there should be a Corrections board established as a top priority to develop and oversee long-term objectives and respond to Government aims and policies.

At the summit, penal-reform guru Kim Workman made the important point that for any significant change to last, it has to have bipartisan support.

A much stronger focus on prisoner education and the offer of reduced sentences to non-violent prisoners who undertake self-improvement - such as becoming literate - already has the support of the National and Act parties and should be adopted by the Labour-led Government forthwith.

This strategy helped New York State to cut its prison population by 26 per cent over 11 years. It's not rocket science and it works.

Next on our wish-list is increasing the number of case managers working with the prisoners.

These people plan and oversee a prisoner's pathway through education to rehabilitation but with each responsible for 50-plus prisoners, there are not enough of them.

It seems, for example, that many prisoners don't seek parole when the opportunity arises because their cases are not well monitored and they don't even fill in the necessary forms.

One wish I heard was for a volunteer co-ordinator for every jail.

As a charity which aims to connect prisoners to the real world and organise community goodwill into effective programmes, we have to deploy the Howard League volunteers who teach literacy and a range of other skills through the volunteer co-ordinators.

Until now, there were only six of these officials for 18 jails and many of the league's offers of volunteer tutors went nowhere.

Over time, my guess is that this means we can double our in-jail activities. Instead of one volunteer co-ordinator for the South Island, there will be five.

That won't be all that comes out of the Justice Summit, but from where I sit, it's a huge start.

• Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.