'Heartbreak upon heartbreak' - one Māori woman's experience of the criminal justice system

Michael Cropp
Source: 1News

Awatea Mita's earliest memories of the police aren't favourable ones.

"My brother was beaten up on the front doorstep of our house more than once," she said. "Our mother was strip searched for no other reason that we could think of than to humiliate her."

Her mother was a filmmaker, documenting the Springbok protests.

"It was scary for us we were just children," Ms Mita said.

As an adult, she spent two years in jail for non-violent drug offending.

"Eleven months into my sentence, my 13-year-old passed away in a swimming accident at Whakatane. That was five years ago but I still carry that pain with me."

As a minimum security prisoner Ms Mita said she was eligible for three days' leave to attend her son's tangi. But the prison bungled the paperwork and she was granted just 12 hours instead. After travel time, there was little left.

"I got to spend 10 minutes with my son before we put the lid on the coffin. We took him up to the urupā, he was buried, I got to eat with my family, then back on the road to Gisborne," she said.

In total she spent just four hours with her whānau that day.

"It was just heartbreak upon heartbreak," she said.

The prison staff never apologised, she said.

Awatea now works in restorative justice, as well studying psychology, criminology and Te Reo Māori fulltime.

"As a sister and as an auntie of so many nieces and nephews whom I love," she said. "I want to dedicate the future direction of my life towards creating a better future for them."


New Otago University research on Māori perceptions of the criminal justice system echoes Ms Mita's story.

Of the 900 Māori surveyed, 90 per cent blame colonisation and racism for their higher rates of imprisonment.

More than half of those who responded had whānau in prison at some point. Nearly all knew someone who had been to prison.

Māori make up 15 per cent of the general population, but more than half the country's prisoners.

Over-representation of indigenous people in prisons is also seen in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Lawyer Moana Jackson of Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou says colonisation was the common denominator.

"The base relationship from which every other relationship flowed was the relationship with the land. You are tangata whenua because you had whenua to be tangata upon.

"If the land is the basis of a people's existence and the base of who they are, then if you take away that base you cause trauma, you cause heartache, you cause suffering.

"When that's overlaid with all of the other things like punishing people for speaking their language and so on, then that compounds the trauma," he said.

The criminal justice system was also at odds with Māori culture, Dr Jackson said.

"We had no word for guilty in our language, so if someone caused harm, rather than asking, 'do you plead guilty or not guilty', the question asked was 'do you understand the harm you have done', and 'do you know who you have harmed'," he said.


Thirty years ago, Dr Jackson published his research on Māori and the criminal justice system, he said all that's changed, "is that the rate of Māori women in prison has risen to 64 per cent".

"[That] makes our women per capita the most imprisoned group of women in the world. I think that's a shocking, shameful figure. It's particularly shocking that's the only change since the 1980s," he said.

Dr Jackson's now updating that research, finding 80 per cent of the former Māori inmates he spoke to were placed in care as children. Of that, 80 per cent were physically and sexually abused while in care.

"I think how we're doing criminal justice in NZ is at odds with the goals we hope to achieve by having a criminal justice system," Ms Mita said.

She summarised those goals as repairing harm, reducing re-offending, and helping people with their mental health, addiction and other problems before they got into trouble.

The Government is set to consider ideas gathered at the justice summit by the end of the year.

So stories like Awatea's will not continue for another 30 years.