Ka hao te Rakatahi
Youth custody in New Zealand

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December 21, 2016

Nā Nuku Tau

With the year winding down, I thought I’d reflect on something I’ve been involved in over the past 12 months – I have been part of a team, including Te Aotahi Rice-Edwards, that has worked on the Youth Custody Index. The Index is a compilation of facts, figures, and information regarding youth custody in New Zealand. I also visited the youth wing at Christchurch Men’s Prison and met a few of the boys I had collected information on.

It became obvious to me that we need to have a hard look at the way we deal with prisoners, youth, and our justice system in general. Before I get into what I mean let me say this: there are many initiatives in place in New Zealand prisons like opportunities to obtain trade skills and NCEA qualifications. The staff are incredible people with genuine care for the boys, and this is in no way a criticism of them or the work they do. It is more my opinion on our society and the current way we do things.

When you’ve had so many negative influences on your life and so many poor role models, what else do you know?

In prison I met a boy who broke into an 80-year-old man’s house and beat him to death. My immediate stuff.com comment section, reptilian-Nuku reaction was that if it were my pōua who had been attacked, I’d think the boy should be taken out and shot immediately. But, of course, things aren’t so simple. The boy grew up in a gang and from the get-go things had been rough. Drugs, violence, alcohol, and numerous other vices had marred his childhood and formative years. This doesn’t excuse his actions but it does help us to understand why. What hope does a child have when raised around all of that? Yes, he made a terrible choice, and personal responsibility and justice rightly demand that he pays for that choice. But when you’ve had so many negative influences on your life and so many poor role models, what else do you know?

When asked what he will do when his sentence ends, he said that while he doesn’t want to, he will most likely be returning as a prospect for their gang – probably the worst outcome I could imagine.

All the rehabilitative practices learned in prison will go to waste, the guidance of the prison guards and therapists will go, and the knowledge or skills he has gained will be wasted. Instead, he will now be better connected to other criminals and know more about crime. I’m not joking when I say the boys in the youth prison had many MacGyver-influenced ways that they shared between themselves (and us) of making drugs and committing crimes. To simply release this boy into the world and back to his old life seems like a terrible idea. But to impose some sort of capital punishment seems equally wrong. This is a human life with human dignity. I feel like, as much as people say that we should bring back the death penalty, shoot paedophiles on the spot etc., not many could actually take a life and in their hearts support it. No one should be allowed to say who lives and dies. It’s a tragedy that I certainly don’t have an answer to, and neither, it seems, does our community.


Seventeen-year-old Nuku Tau (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri) is a Year 12 student at St Thomas of Canterbury College.

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