20 Apr 2018

Te Reo prison pilot helping stamp out gang rivalries

From Checkpoint, 6:21 pm on 20 April 2018

A pilot programme at a South Auckland prison is being credited with helping Māori men reconnect with their culture and stamp out gang rivalries and jail tensions in the process.

There are also plans to extend the programme, which sees inmates come together for a two-hour te reo Māori lesson once a week.

As one of the prisoners explains - this class is strictly a no gang zone at the jail, which is home to more than 900 inmates.

"We leave all our colours out the door you know, we don't bring it in the hui or the wananga we're having," he said.

"And I suppose outside the door... there's still a lot respect shown amongst everyone."

Since September, seven students have taken a pilot te reo Māori programme based on Māori broadcaster Scotty Morrison's book Māori Made Easy.

The prisoners have different gang affiliations - but when they enter the wharenui and open their Māori dictionaries - those differences are put aside.

"It doesn't even cross our minds that there's rivalry amongst us - where just trying to learn together," the prisoner said.

"We're here to learn our own culture, our own reo -  kai o te rangatira - a chiefly language."

The prisoner's teacher, Anne Gervin, is a volunteer from the prison reform group, the Howard League.

She said it's taken time for the class to work together.

"Right from the start I said I was not the teacher, I was not the tutor it was a collaborative working environment."

"Some students are fluent te reo Māori speakers, while others are still at the beginning of their journey.

However, Anne Gervin has been able to see how much they've improved in the last seven months.

"I'm so proud of what they've done - they've worked really hard and two hours is quite a long time when you are having to focus quite carefully on language and structure and vocabulary."

Prison director Mike Inglis said the te reo programme shows prisoners could look beyond their gang connections.

"For me everything we do in prison is based on respect and respecting each other - we have a zero tolerance to violence in any form."

He said he saw how the programme would benefit inmates.

"Whether that's back to iwi, hapu or back into the whānau - the strategies or the programs or the interventions that they've taken part in here continue with them," Mr Inglis said.

Currently, Māori men make up 45 percent of the prison population in New Zealand.

Ms Girvin said she hoped her current crop of students would be able to teach the other prisoners keen to do the class in the future.

The seven prisoners taking the reo lessons will graduate next month at a ceremony in front of their loved ones.