Hawke's Bay Regional Prison inmates are aiming to retain their inter-prison kapa haka title at this year's competition.
The 2021 Hōkai Rangi Whakataetae Kapa Haka will see all 18 prisons in New Zealand invited to perform kapa haka for judges who'll visit each prison.
Hawke's Bay Regional Prison (HBRP) was crowned the 2020 champions of the Kairangi o Te Reo in the non-aggregate section of the inaugural competition, which saw eight sites compete.
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said the competition aimed to support the goals of Corrections' strategy Hōkai Rangi by bringing participants closer to their culture, identity and language.
Department of Corrections deputy chief executive Māori Topia Rameka said while still awaiting confirmation of HBRP's involvement, there is a "keen attitude" towards the competition among prisoners.
"Last year their group was very successful and won the Kairangi o Te Reo in the non-aggregate section," he said.
"Men in the Te Tirohanga unit at HBRP are especially encouraged to participate in the whakataetae."
The inaugural competition included five sites where Te Tirohanga units are based - including HBRP.
The Department of Corrections will partner with kapa haka tutors from the community, iwi and mana whenua to support participants in their preparation.
Davis said the competition, which will also be open to Community Corrections sites staff, offers a chance for all to celebrate Māori culture while building teamwork, discipline and a sense of achievement.
"Access to culture is a fundamental right, not a privilege, regardless of a person's circumstances," Davis said.
"In 2020, the competition had a positive impact on the relationships between staff, prisoners and all those involved. It created whanaungatanga within the groups."
The "whānau" themed contest, funded through the Māori Pathways Programme, will take place in June and July, with the winners announced in August.
Rameka said Covid-19 restrictions impacted on the time available for training and rehearsal, meaning only sites able to establish a suitable team and performance within a short time frame competed.
"This year we are hoping for much wider participation, as more time is available for preparation," he said.
Davis said this is a "small but significant" part of attempting to break the cycle of Māori reoffending and imprisonment.
"We've launched Hōkai Rangi and Māori Pathways, we've placed thousands of offenders into employment, and we're implementing a major boost to mental health and addiction services," he said.
The minister said while long-term challenges, there are already 830 fewer Māori in prison today compared to this time three years ago.
"The Māori imprisonment rate, while still too high, has been decreasing, and Māori reconviction and reimprisonment rates are improving," Davis added.
"It's great to now be able to provide them with the opportunity to learn waiata, poi, and haka, and about Māori culture and heritage."
The National Party's corrections spokesman Simeon Brown said Davis' focus should be on keeping staff safe instead of the inter-prison competition.
"Davis has clearly decided prisoners deserve more attention and care than our corrections officers," he said. "He's more focused on making sure prisoners enjoy their stay in prison than keeping our corrections officers safe."
The public will not be able to watch the competition, but some sites may allow representatives of the local iwi and family members of the participants to watch the performances.
Performances and eventual winners will be filmed and broadcast on Prison TV.