Mana-enhancement in imprisoned rangatahi through storytelling
The first story is the whakapapa. The second is the story we leave for others to follow.
To speak into truth
stories to persist.
Growing up around my nan, I fell in love with creative writing and storytelling. She lived a life rich in stories. Massage the knots from her neck and trust they’ve held more than just her head up. Writing is a way for me to say ‘I love you, thank you,’ to her and her stories. To hold conversation with people and moments tangible in memory alone.
Our ancestors shared knowledge not by page but by spoken story and truth. It’s empowering to consider that our stories adapt and migrate as we do. They are not tethered to land or page. Black ink cannot possibly hold our ocean.
However, within a disempowering correctional system devoid of creative opportunities, how are our rangatahi Māori and Pasifika to tell and share stories in a way that is mana-enhancing?
Te Kāhui is a Corrections and community-based creative writing programme for rangatahi Māori and Pasifika. The kaupapa focuses on creative equity as a means of empowerment. In bringing this whakaaro to the page, I must assert my positionality as someone of Te Moana-Nui-a Kiwa, who has close connections to presently and previously incarcerated peoples, and who works in prisons but who has not been incarcerated. Hence the lens from which I write cannot speak to the lived experience of incarceration.
To lose the capacity to tell and share stories creates dissonance between people and their identities. The rangatahi I have been fortunate to work with are exceptional storytellers, actively reclaiming stories or sharpening their pens for joy. They weave with words where material resources lack. Stories about loved ones, however far away. Stories about past learnings and future aspirations. Stories about cats in summer.
Their kupu are honest and untethered simultaneously. In showing up for themselves and their stories, incarcerated rangatahi are–
making mana moves
finding the water in words, tracing whakapapa lines with
blunt pencils, but
wielders of whiteboard markers aren’t carvers
and lined refill
ain’t a substitute for shore
and sure, we can stand
but our ancestors never dreamt
for us to be stationary.
Storytelling is resistance to stagnancy. Just as our Māori and Pacific elders moved oceans for us to be able to attend University, the stories told in the car before church, while gardening to the Maramataka, and while giving us a growling all contribute to a collective fluid truth. A place to plant roots and a story to belong within.
To give and receive a story in any space requires a degree of vulnerability. This is especially true for many incarcerated tāne who associate the unfastened display of emotion with a call to weakness. Each writing workshop contains a series of writing exercises (prompts) to guide the writing journey. One such prompt is a series of images that writers can select to guide their writing; the ocean, a freshwater river, and a factory chimney, among others. In one piece, the writer traced their whakapapa to the whenua on which the prison stood. Going to prison was their first time being on the land their ancestors called home.
To kōrero about incarceration, it must be acknowledged that Māori and Pasifika peoples are disproportionately represented in prison statistics. Wāhine Māori especially make up around 60% of the female prison population in Aotearoa. The over-incarceration of Māori and Pasifika, especially at higher security classifications (e.g., in maximum security prisons), demonstrates devastating systemic failure. A failure to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to address the inter-generational harm of incarceration. Incarceration disrupts the connection to moana and whenua; leaves people devoid of story and self.
Prison seems to be accepted as a natural progression of punishment. A consequence of an individual’s action when taken in isolation. However, this framing neglects the collective experience of land loss, intergenerational trauma, and systemic oppression. Such framing equally diminishes the presence of indigenous dispute resolution; everything from whare tūpuna, tikanga a noho, rau aroha, reintegration plans, kaupapa Māori and Pasifika forms of punishment, and an understanding that all voices are to be heard throughout the process.
People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) is a prison abolition rōpu that advocates for the rights of incarcerated people and highlights the structural violence prevalent in Aotearoa’s criminal justice system. They create resources on transformative justice and publications on everything from prisoner voting rights and the harm of solitary confinement to political parties’ policies on crime reduction (and how these often continue to perpetrate harm against our indigenous communities). In addition, the Prisoner Correspondence Network (PCN) is a service of PAPA for incarcerated people to connect with penpals outside of prison. I’ve been a part of this kaupapa alongside my mahi. While some incarcerated people have contact with whānau outside of prison, others may go years without hearing from anyone. Hence, such an initiative is fundamental. For more information, check out https://papa.org.nz/.
For creative equity, justice and indigenous empowerment, there must be a way to restore mana to the navigation of crime and consequence. Policymakers call it delusional. Progressive Pākehā call it radical. Walking along Karangahape Road, there are shirts with ACAB and mentions of prison reform spun into conversations over coffee. Prisons fundamentally were not designed to serve the incarcerated rangatahi I work with, but perpetuate harm, maintain stagnancy, and leave storytellers devoid of their power. The persistence of accessible creative opportunities is a commitment to healing. One day, I hope justice can be treated as synonymous with healing rather than punishment.
healing will happen on the land that calls us home
stories intertwined with oceanic bones, kupu carved
but until then, we
will speak, and we will write
stories to persist.
Artwork: Systems Fractured and Misplaced