I grew up in a household full of crime. My siblings and I were constantly in and out of prison. I rubbed shoulders with murderers, drug dealers, rapists and child molesters. Our house was visited by gang members and other criminal "lowlifes".

You see Mum and Dad were both prison chaplains. Crime was never far from the surface as they and other members of the prison reform movement met to talk rehabilitation. And we would be at a church service in the prisons at least once a month if not more often.

I saw men and women at the lowest point of their lives. I saw first-hand the scarring on their bodies and the bandages around their wrists as they'd yet again tried to kill themselves. And I heard stories of horror about those prisoners' childhoods that even Stephen King would struggle to write.

'For those of you who want to blame colonisation as the cause, tell that to the victims' whanau — they'll spit in your face and tell you it was a drug-addled alcohol-addicted useless Maori father that murdered their child.'

One that still chills me to this day is too graphic to describe in any detail. Suffice to say this Maori woman had, at the age of 7, with her 5-year-old brother, watched their father murder their mother in the most brutal way imaginable. She told with chilling calm how she had directed her little brother to "put Mum's blood into a bucket so when the ambulance comes they can pour it into her and make her better again". This girl went on to kill herself alone in her prison cell.


A crisis for victims

I write these words in light of the recent Criminal Justice Symposium, held in Porirua — another yawn-fest focused on the fact we have too many Maori prisoners. Uh huh.

Here's the thing: having grown up with Maori criminals, I don't much care for their life choices. You kill, you go to prison. You deal hard drugs, you go to prison. You bash your wife and kids, you go to prison. These people know right from wrong. They know their choices may end them up in prison. And if you don't believe me, ask them.

I care about that brutalised 7-year-old and the life path her murderous father set for her.

In the lead-up to that almost inevitable killing of her mother, her father was a wife-beating, hard-drinking, serial-womanising thug. Her life was punctuated by the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of those her father brought around for parties — Once Were Warriors was effectively her life story. She was a victim of crime. And yes, she went on to victimise, by committing murder.

Unfortunately we've become criminal-focused and not victim-focused. We speak in horror that 50 per cent of male prisoners are Maori. And we're now beginning to speak of the fact that 65 per cent of the female prison population is Maori. Is it a crisis? Only if we consider that for every prisoner, we have multiple victims of their crimes. The number of Maori prisoners does signal a crisis — a crisis for their victims and for our Maori communities.

We are disproportionate victims of crime — 30 per cent more likely to experience theft and damages offences, almost twice as likely to experience property crime, and nearly three times more likely to experience repeat violent interpersonal offences. It gets worse.

Maori women make up just 7 per cent of our country's population, but 20 per cent of all assault victims. And if that doesn't cause you to sit up, perhaps this next number will. Of the 58 children killed in their family homes between 1990 and 2014, 35 (60 per cent) were Maori.


For those of you who want to blame colonisation as the cause, tell that to the victims' whanau — they'll spit in your face and tell you it was a drug-addled alcohol-addicted useless Maori father that murdered their child. These men should be grateful for prison, in comparison with the justice meted out in our old Maori ways.

Prisons are not a failure. Maori men and women who commit crime are a failure. And that failure starts with us — their whanau.

We've watched the parties that start on a Thursday night and finish Sunday. We've been to homes and watched as they sit in a cannabis-induced haze, where the benefit is prioritised on alcohol and partying at the expense of food, clothing, and schooling. We've turned a blind eye to the black eyes.

You see, dealing with whanau like this is hard and horrendously frustrating. We know the Treaty has got nothing to do with it — we come from the same whakapapa or have the same grandparents and tipuna and don't behave like this. And that's because of personal choices.

Cure starts in whanau

My grandfather, Ned Kamo, came to Christchurch from Wharekauri with my grandmother (Kui Whaitiri). Papa's education was limited (he left school at 12). He was a farm worker on the island, and those skills weren't in much demand in 1930s Depression-era Christchurch. He had no money and struggled to make ends meet. But make ends meet he did. And throughout my father's childhood, my grandfather was laser-like in his focus on the importance of getting an education.

So you can imagine the messages that we mokopuna heard growing up. He never spoke of broken Treaty promises or the fact he'd received little land from the alienation of title that occurred in his father Tareikamo Paramena's time. He never complained of his lack of education or that colonisation was making life hard for him.

What he did do was celebrate every success we told him about. And he took great pride in the fact we were at school and trying our best. We need to change the tune.

I know first-hand the brutal lives of many Maori criminals and I know that too many of them have been victims of crime, neglect, and violence in their childhood. These root causes have been generations in the making, and no one government can be blamed.

But to focus on prisons as being the problem for Maori borders on absurd. To suggest less prison equals less crime is preposterous. The problem is the victimisation of Maori by our own.

Prisons provide welcome relief for those brutalised by their loved ones on a daily basis — they serve these victims of crime. They may also be a place where we can begin the long road to addressing the issues that led to time behind bars — but I doubt that. If they did we wouldn't need them.

The cure starts in our whanau and the choices we make. Rehabilitation has to start with "habilitated" individuals. The 7-year-old girl I referred to could never have been rehabilitated, because she was never properly socialised in the first place.

A lack of education, poor life, financial and social skills, hand-in-hand with poor parenting, are at the root of crime. The solutions involve support to the parents of at-risk kids. We must ruthlessly address these issues early, and, as whanau, demand the resources to keep these kids at school, and even, if necessary, to keep their parents away from them.

Crime will not end with more prisons. And nor will fewer prisons end crime. Crime will end within our whanau and the choices we make.

Ward Kamo is a board member of Pillars, an agency focused on supporting children of prisoners. Reprinted with the permission of Te Karaka.