Specialised Māori mental health units, more whānau and iwi engagement, and targeted treatment for Māori at high risk of reoffending are part of an overhaul the Government's approach to reduce the rate of Māori imprisonment.

At Parliament this morning, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis and Corrections chief executive Christine Stevenson launched a new five-year strategy called Hōkai Rangi.

The long-term aim is to reduce the Māori proportion of the prison muster to their 15 per cent make-up of the general population; currently Māori make up 52 per cent of the male prison muster, 57 per cent of the female muster, and 67 per cent of the youth muster.

Davis said the status quo - including previous strategies to combat Māori offending - had failed, focusing too much on locking up and isolating people, and delivering only more Māori in prison, broken individuals, and whanau in distress.

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He said Hōkai Rangi, which was designed alongside Māori, would focus on turning around prisoners' lives with the help of whānau and iwi, and not traumatising them beyond the loss of liberty.

Planned initiatives include:

• A partnership between Kiingitanga and Housing NZ for housing and support services for 24 Māori women on release.

• A whānau-centred approach to help gang members, with a focus on preventing family violence

• A kaupapa Māori facility at Northland Prison, and Whānau Ora navigators at that prison and at Hawke's Bay Prison

• Special treatment units for Māori men, women and youth at risk of high reoffending

• A 100-bed mental health facility at Waikeria Prison with a Māori model of care

The Government wants to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent by 2033, and Davis said it would be reasonable to expect Hōkai Rangi to reduce the muster by 10 per cent by 2024.

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"The biggest change is the idea we are now going to treat the person and not just their crime."

Corrections chief executive Christine Stevenson says it will take generations to reduce the rate of Maori imprisonment to the same as the general population. Photo / Derek Cheng
Corrections chief executive Christine Stevenson says it will take generations to reduce the rate of Maori imprisonment to the same as the general population. Photo / Derek Cheng

Stevenson said it would take generations to see the proportion of Māori in prisons drop to 15 per cent, and whānau had a huge role to play.

"We can help the individual with their criminogenic needs. We can help with rehabilitation. But the family has to be alongside for that journey."

She said Māori prisoners in special units were later returned to normal units and lost all they had learned, or had gone through programmes without their whānau, who then reacted negatively to the change when their loved ones were released.

"This [strategy] will look like prisoners in Māori units staying in those units all the way through the term of their sentence. It will mean whānau being brought in so they understand what the journey is like."

The strategy includes a commitment to access to Māori culture as a right, not a privilege, more support upon release, and shared decision-making with Māori, including a new position of Corrections deputy chief executive Māori.

National Party corrections spokesman David Bennett said it was too focused on the prison system, and lacked emphasis on reintegration and finding jobs for released prisoners.

"The culture being created at the moment is that the prisoner is first.

"Last week, people were allowed to send letters out that shouldn't have been able to, and that reflects the culture of the system."

Stevenson noted the department's failures last week, apologised for them again, but said prisons were not meant to punish people beyond the loss of liberty.

"The point is not, once you're in prison, to punish you further. Actually the point is trying to help you so that you don't come back.

"The best thing would be for those people to be able to function, able to work, help able to care for their families, and not reoffend."

Davis said most prisoners will eventually be released.

"While there are people killing and murdering and [committing] heinous crimes, there's going to be a need for prisons. But it's what we do with people inside those prisons that is going to make a big difference."

He said the disproportionate number of Māori in prison had become normalised, making it easy to forget that they were people.

"Those statistics aren't just numbers. They represent our mothers and fathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers, and worst of all, our children and our grandchildren."