From the time of British colonisation Māori were officially subject to British law. In practice this generally only applied when Māori were in areas of major Pākehā settlement. Elsewhere, Māori traditional systems of control continued to predominate. Throughout the 19th century the percentage of prisoners who were Māori was very low, usually less than 3% of the total prison population. There were short periods where large numbers of Māori were imprisoned, such as prisoners of war in the 1860s and the protesters arrested at Parihaka in the 1880s.
Gradual rise, 1900–45
In the early 20th century the number of Māori imprisoned began to rise. The Māori prison population reached 11% of the total prison population by 1936. Māori urbanisation, accelerated by the Second World War, was clearly a factor in the increasing number of Māori prisoners. In 1945 Māori made up 21% of prison admissions, at a time when they were 6% of the total population.
Explosion in numbers, 1950–2011
From 1955 the proportion of prisoners who were Māori increased dramatically. By 1971 Māori were 40% of the prison population, while forming around 10% of the country’s total population. Over this period the Department of Justice was forced to acknowledge that Māori crime and imprisonment were major issues. Since 1980 Māori have consistently made up about half the prison population.
A Māori prisoner’s view
One Māori woman prisoner commented, ‘Sticking us in jail ain’t gonna do nothing ... you take us away from the community and then when we get out we don’t know what else to do ... and we go back to doing what we did before ... and when we come back [to prison] okay, we know how it goes, we’ve been here before. They’re doing it all wrong – thinking why their jails are filling up … Why stick us in jail if there’s nothing to help us.’1
In the 2000s Māori continued to make up a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population. In 2011 Māori were around 15% of the New Zealand population, whereas 51% of those imprisoned were Māori. In 2009, 56% of women prisoners were Māori. A 2007 report put the Māori imprisonment rate at around 700 per 100,000 of the population.
The high rate of Māori imprisonment is the result of a complex range of factors, including the larger proportion of Māori in lower socio-economic groups, the higher percentage of young people in the Māori population, higher rates of Māori unemployment, the ongoing effects of urbanisation and the impact of gang culture. Some critics argue that the justice system is stacked against Māori at all stages, making Māori more likely than non-Māori to be arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to prison.
Imprisonment rates are of concern for their impact on Māori communities and on broader New Zealand society. One response by the Department of Corrections has been to establish Māori Focus Units. These are open to medium- and minimum-security prisoners, and aim to change prisoners’ behaviour through greater understanding of tikanga Māori (correct ways of acting). The department also has a policy of consulting with Māori community groups and trying to recruit more Māori staff.