Why did Māori never have prisons?

Prisons have become such an entrenched part of western society that we forget that they’re comparatively new phenomena — and that even most western societies for centuries didn’t have the notion of locking up people in something called a prison. They had other ways of dealing with harm. Other ways of maintaining harmony, order and peace in society.

But because prisons have, in such a short time, become so entrenched, the conversation about their eventual abolition will be, necessarily, a long and difficult one.

In order to facilitate that conversation, to guide us not just as individuals but as a country toward something different, I think it’s necessary not just to be aware of the relatively short history of prisons, but to be aware of their entrenchment and the powerful position that the institution of corrections holds in this country. And therefore, to be aware, as I see it, of the difficulty of the conversation.

In talking about that difficulty, I think one of the things we have to do — besides, as I often say, be imaginative and be brave — is to be honest.

For Māori people, ever since the first prison — a little raupō hut — was built in the north, our people have seen prisons as antithetical to everything that is consistent with tikanga and with our history. And as that little raupō hut expanded into the prison-building industry that we have today, that Māori view of imprisonment has merged into a clear analysis of the criminal justice system being racist.

And we need to be honest about that.

For some reason, a lot of criminologists and others have said it’s unhelpful to use the word “racism”. It’s emotive. But unless we name the word, we can’t address the problems which the word conjures up.

Now there is talk about something called “unconscious bias” and “affirmative discrimination”, and so on. And those terms are at least more helpful than denying that there is bias or discrimination but, in my respectful view, they still do not name the situation for what it is.

Part of the dissonance in this country about calling things racist is that there has developed, since 1840, this myth that the colonisation and the dispossession of Māori people was somehow better than the dispossession of other Indigenous peoples. That the Crown was somehow honourable in its determination to take away our lands, our lives, and our power.

But to have a notion of an honourable colonisation, of an honourable dispossession, is fundamentally a contradiction because you can’t honourably dispossess someone of what they are — of their lands, of their history, of their language.

But the creation of the idea of a better-than-somewhere-else colonisation led to the idea that, as a result, race relations between Māori and others were better than anywhere else in the world.

And so, if there were issues with prejudice or bias, say in corrections policies or the operations of CYFS and so on, they easily get sidelined as being aberrations, as being exceptions to the rule.

People do get uncomfortable talking about racism, but if we don’t talk about racism, it’s rather like if women didn’t challenge the patriarchy by talking about sexism. As if women could challenge misogyny without naming it as sexism. As if women could talk about the disparities in pay between men and women, without labelling it as sexism. We don’t seem to have a difficulty with using the term “sexism”, but we do seem to have difficulty with using a comparative word in a different sense: racism.

So, part of the necessary debate, part of the necessary conversation leading towards the eventual abolition of prisons, in my view, is to be honest about how we frame that conversation, and to acknowledge the racism of colonisation, because in the end, colonisation was driven by decisions made in Europe, that so-called civilised white countries had a right to dispossess peoples who were not white, and not “civilised”.

And although there were lots of other contributing factors to that dispossession — the mad economic drive for wealth and so on — the fundamental framework within which colonisation operated was a racist one. And it was from that racist framework that prisons and the subsequent development of corrections policies developed in this country.

And to name that for what it is, is not to suggest that everyone involved with corrections is individually racist. Just as to talk about male harassment of women is not to imply that every man is a harasser of women. But it is to be honest, by naming the issue for what it is.

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Why did Māori never have prisons? | E-Tangata