Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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A kaupapa Māori analysis of the use of Māori cultural identity in the prison system

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posted on 2021-11-14, 23:11 authored by Mihaere, Riki

Māori are 15% of the New Zealand population, and yet are 45.3% of annual police apprehensions and 51% of the prison population. This status of Māori ‘over-representation’ in the criminal justice system has remained steady for the last 34 years. One principle explanation of this status is that Māori have limited access to a secure Māori cultural identity. As a result, criminal justice authorities, especially the Department of Corrections, have progressively focused policies and programmes towards the perceived Māori cultural related needs of Māori offenders and prisoners. This focus is undertaken not only to reduce rates of recidivism but also to provide culturally relevant environments for Māori prisoners and increased opportunities for successful rehabilitation.   The result is that New Zealand’s prison system now contains a number of unique strategies such as the Māori Therapeutic Programme, the New Life Akoranga Programme and Māori Focus Units. Despite these developments, there remains a dearth of clearly articulated descriptions of how, why or even if Māori cultural identity has a positive effect on reducing Māori offending and imprisonment. This thesis is designed to address this gap in the research.   The thesis pursues a kaupapa Māori methodology, using in-depth interviews with key Māori associated with the development of the theory, policy and practice of Māori cultural identity in the criminal justice system. This focus provides an opportunity for those Māori whose careers or, in some cases, life works have been dedicated to the development and implementation of cultural responses to crime to speak for themselves. This approach allows a full exploration of the underlying rationale and meaning of the Māori cultural identity policies and resultant programmes sprinkled throughout New Zealand’s system.  The thesis develops two key arguments. Firstly, despite strongly held criminal justice beliefs about the potential validity of Māori cultural identity in relation to reducing Māori offending and imprisonment, the broader context regarding the status of Māori as the most marginalised population in New Zealand is largely ignored. Rather than accepting that Māori offending is likely to be ignited by a broad array of socio-economic factors which are the result of generations of colonising Pākehā practices, the Correctional response has been to individualise Māori offending by focusing on the degree of Māori cultural identity inherent in specific Māori offenders. Secondly, that the authenticity of Māori cultural identity policies and programmes designed and delivered by Corrections is questionable. While the Department argues that Māori cultural identity nestles comfortably within western-based therapeutic programmes, professional Māori disagree. In their view, the Māori cultural identity programmes delivered in New Zealand’s prisons do not resemble Māori culture at all. Given these two arguments, the thesis questions whether the criminal justice use of Māori cultural identity is more a measure of official attempts to meet ‘Treaty’ obligations rather than a genuine effort to reduce Māori offending and imprisonment.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Stanley, Elizabeth; Webb, Robert