New Zealand has the second highest incarceration rate in the Western World, beat only by the United States. Yet, there is an unequal distribution throughout prisons, with Maori making up majority of those incarcerated. The explanation lies in history.
New Zealand has been praised for its efforts in incorporating aspects of indigenous culture into everyday life. Road signs are posted in both English and Maori. Students in school learn Maori history and culture. The All Blacks do the haka. But looking beneath the surface it is apparent that racism against the Maori culture still very much exists. This is no more evident as in the incarceration rates. Maori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population but over 50 percent of the prison population. This difference has to be examined not just on a criminal justice level but also from a historical perspective.
A study from the University of Otago, found that there three main reasons behind the high incarceration rates for Maori people. They are structural racism, intergenerational trauma, and colonization. Of course these three are all intertwined with colonization being the cause for intergenerational trauma and structural racism. The biggest effects of colonization come from subordination and institutionalized change. Having a change in the value of wealth – to one of monetary and property value – and being on the losing end of that spectrum creates a never ending struggle. Maori justice system before colonization revolved around group accountability and following tikanga, the Maori just way of being. Prisons involve punishment and individual causation. Adapting to a system whose values are drastically different than your own and having to fight for your land and culture, has left the Maori at a disadvantage.
On an individual level, majority of inmates had been a victim to violence, had a mental health diagnosis or brain injury, did not have proper schooling, and/or had a parent who also had been in correctional facilities. Poverty on its own is a huge factor in crime statistics with first acts being committed out of necessity. Add on top of that, generational histories of crime, violence, and mental health, it is hard to break the cycle.
If you look both at the history of New Zealand and the history of the person, it is no surprise that institutionalized racism exists. The current government is working on reducing the number of people incarcerated but it is hard to tackle the problem when Maori representation at the government level is lacking. They are looking towards examples from Norway, with community correction facilities, and there are programs working to bring Maori values to prisons. But until more effort is done to correct inequalities in wealth, education, and healthcare it may be hard to have lasting change.
DEVIN O’DONNELL’s interest in travel was cemented by a multi-month trip to East Africa when she was 19. Since then, she has continued to have immersive experiences on multiple continents. Devin has written for a start-up news site and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Neuroscience.