Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi has called for a ministerial inquiry into the treatment of prison inmates, telling Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis that Aotearoa/New Zealand needs a “by Māori, for Māori, to Māori approach to dealing without whānau in prisons”.

Waititi’s comments follow Minister Davis’ accusations that he was “basically encouraging the incitement of disorder in prisons” after inmates at Waikeria Prison protested prison conditions in an alleged six-day riot in late December 2020.

The minister said it was irresponsible behaviour that endangered the lives of Corrections officers.

“A publication encouraging prisoners to riot quoting a member of the Māori Party has been distributed. I said from the beginning that politicians involving themselves in some Corrections matters could only serve to embolden and encourage more events that endanger the lives of prisoners and staff,” he said.

“It was then, and it is now irresponsible behaviour.”

Minister Davis was referring to a People Against Prisoners Aotearoa publication, which had included a quote made elsewhere by the Māori Party co-leader: “When injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty.”

The minister’s office said a concerned prisoner gave it to Corrections staff who passed it on to the police.

“The member is basically encouraging the incitement of disordering prisons by saying this publication is acceptable. He’s endangering the lives of Corrections officers and it is unacceptable,” Minister Davis said.

Waititi said he had no idea how Minister Davis came to that conclusion. He said he was involved in the prisoners’ dispute over alleged mistreatment early on but that he only arrived the following day.

“I went to mediate, and ensure they were heard,” Waititi said.

Waititi said the minister had been absent during the alleged riot at Waikeria Prison over the new year and government inaction had been well-documented.

The pamphlet advised prisoners on what to do if they’re unhappy with their living conditions including launching petitions, applying pressure through media and staging peaceful protests.

The prison reform group hit back at the Corrections minister, saying he is simply trying to distract attention from the huge problems in the country’s prison system.

The group’s spokesperson, Emilie Rakete, said they encourage non-violent protests.

“We aren’t trying to incite riots,” she told The New Zealand Herald.

“I think that Kelvin Davis has deliberately misrepresented the content of that newsletter in order to distract from the sickening and humiliating violence which we are finding out about this week that was perpetrated under his watch against wāhine [female] Māori in Auckland Women’s Corrections facility.”

Waititi said Minister Davis needs to address the problems in prisons.

“I think he’s choosing to deter us from the actual kaupapa [issue], which is around the incompetence of Corrections at this particular time to look after our people in prison,” he said.

“All it takes is they say yes, we’ve got huge issues, we need to look at how we move forward.”

Following an investigation in November 2020, where an asthmatic woman was reportedly pepper sprayed and forced to show her used sanitary products to male guards, a district court judge ruled some of the treatment of prisoners at Auckland Women’s Prison was “excessive, degrading and fundamentally inhumane”.

In response to Waititi’s comments on speeding up Hōkai Rangi (Corrections’ new strategic direction) Minister Davis said it will take a “considerable amount of time and effort to turn around a whole operating system”.

“There will be bumps in the road. That’s not going to stop us from making the necessary improvements,” he said.

“Things are changing but it will take time.”

On if there needs to be a ministerial inquiry, he said he needed to hear the Corrections side of the story.

“If I think I need to act on it then I will.”

By Darby Ingram