Your life and your choices

The Northland Age - - Opinion - By Ward Kamo

Igrew 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.

One that still chills me to this day is too graphic to de­scribe in any de­tail. Suf­fice to say this Ma¯ori 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. 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 Ma¯ori pris­on­ers. Uh huh.

Here’s the thing: hav­ing grown up with Ma¯ori 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-yearold 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, hard­drink­ing, 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 Ma¯ori. And we’re now be­gin­ning to speak of the fact that 65 per cent of the fe­male prison pop­u­la­tion is Ma¯ori. Is it a cri­sis? Only if we con­sider that for ev­ery pris­oner, we have mul­ti­ple vic­tims of their crimes. The num­ber of Ma¯ori pris­on­ers does sig­nal a cri­sis — a cri­sis for their vic­tims and for our Ma¯ori 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.

Ma¯ori 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 Ma¯ ori.

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

Prisons are not a fail­ure. Ma¯ori men and women who com­mit crime are a fail­ure. And that fail­ure starts with us — their wha¯nau.

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 wha¯nau 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 t¯ıpuna and don’t be­have like this. And that’s be­cause of per­sonal choices. 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 Ma¯ori 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 Ma¯ori bor­ders on ab­surd. To sug­gest less prison equals less crime is pre­pos­ter­ous. The prob­lem is the vic­tim­i­sa­tion of Ma¯ori 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 wha¯nau 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 wha¯nau, 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 wha¯nau and the choices we make.

A cri­sis for vic­tims

"For those of you who want to blame coloni­sa­tion as the cause, tell that to the vic­tims’ wha¯ nau — they’ll spit in your face and tell you it was a drug-ad­dled al­co­ho­lad­dicted use­less Ma¯ ori fa­ther that mur­dered their child.

Cure starts in whanau

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

Ward Kamo

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