The number of prisoners waiting for case outcomes is at an all-time high. Like the wider muster population, Māori account for at least half. A West Auckland initiative provides an alternative to remand behind bars. Could it also be a base for true partnership between Crown and Māori? 

Matiu Edwards looks sullenly at the camera.

Matiu Edwards

It is hard to miss Matiu Edwards.

The first time we meet, he is making a protein shake in the kitchen of a recently opened West Auckland bail accommodation house. 

It requires looking past the swastikas and gang branding dominating his face to hold his gaze and shake his hand. 

Behind him, the dish rack on the steel bench is stacked with clean plates and mugs. A roster for household chores also takes up space on one of the walls. As he seals the cap of the shake container, he says “nice to meet you” and departs to the backyard for his workout.

The scene almost passes as a typical flat kitchen.

Only Matiu is a member of the Hawke’s Bay Mongrel Mob chapter and his current residence is the NZ Bail Accommodation and Support Services (BASS). This week, the 30-year-old is one of seven men staying at the pre-sentencing residence. 

Opened in July, BASS takes up to 11 defendants who are eligible for bail in the community. Most of the men have been charged with drug offences and stay there because the court has found their regular address unsuitable for bail. The number of people in a home, the presence of young children and proximity to victims all impact suitability of an address for bail. It has also been reported Housing New Zealand generally disapprove of bailees in its properties. 

Collectively, those requirements make it more difficult for certain people to get bail. Worst affected are Māori, poor and/or homeless. It is a problem emblematic of the links between ethnicity, economic status, housing and offending. 

Justice Ministry figures from June 2018 show 54 percent of the 3283-strong adult remand population were Māori. Remand prisoners account for about 30 percent of the wider muster population, which shares a similar demographic makeup to its pre-sentencing cohort. Further, a breakdown of data relating to alleged offence outcomes show Māori are significantly more likely to be remanded in custody than any other ethnic group even if there is insufficient information to prove a case. 

For those who come through BASS, it is essentially an alternative to jail. Importantly, unlike their counterparts waiting for case outcomes behind bars, residents undertake mandatory rehabilitative and behavioural programmes related to their offending. 

A week after first visiting the property, we return to speak with Matiu and learn more about his current address. 

“I guess I’ll start from the beginning then,” the Flaxmere local says coolly. 

Matiu has been here nearly two months. Prior to that, he completed the six-month kaupapa Māori alcohol and drug rehabilitation programme Te Ara Hou in Manurewa. He is due to be sentenced for possessing and supplying methamphetamine at the end of January. The 30-year-old was caught in a police operation that netted a street value of $2.5million worth of the drug in October 2017. 

 

“There is no rehabilitation at home like up here. 

I did drug counselling. I did anger management, but that’s only like once a week or something like that. There’s no stay-in place.

I had a dope habit - marijuana. I wanted to get help, so I applied to go there [Te Ara Hou]."

Matiu

 

It took nearly a year to get to the programme. During that waiting period, he was bailed to his home. After finishing at Te Ara Hou, Matiu says he was told to find an appropriate bail address in Auckland.  

“The police back home did not want me back. They think I’m a threat to the community - well this is in my own mind,” he says. 

He talks about how he ended up at BASS. Owner Sam Lasike is a big part of it. The impacts of his green and red tattoo, and his negative experience of authorities, are also blended into the explanation. 

Several residences turned him away because of his face, Matiu says. 

 “Obviously, some people will look and take some things by face value. You get turned away straight away, just like trying to get a job,” he says.  

“[Sam] interviewed me. I filled out the paperwork, and he took me for who I was - no judgement. 

 “It’s actually cool - it brings a different feeling: You know this fella is not talking to me for nothing. It’s not shit talk. He’s not telling me what I want to hear, and then going away and: ‘Oh no, declined’. He spoke to me, I spoke to him and he asked where I wanted to go in life,” he says. 

Sam Laskie stands outside BASS.

Sam Laskie

Like others at BASS, Matiu participates in a range of on-site and off-site programmes. While all residents are on a 24-hour curfew as part of their bail conditions, they receive special dispensation to attend programmes approved by a judge. Police also perform bail checks numerous times a day, and at least one staff member is on-site all the time. Additionally, security cameras are in 16 spots around the property. 

Yesterday, Matiu was at Patua Te Ngangara - an educational programme run by Hoani Waititi marae that focuses on education around methamphetamine. He is also enrolled with the local community and alcohol drug services. Everyone at BASS must also attend the weekly in-house Narcotics Anonymous meeting and parenting course. A mandatory counsellor also works with residents around addictions and behaviour. 

“This is a good place because they want to keep people out [of prison],” Matiu says. 

“They want to give you the programmes, the ability to learn these things that you never knew before that give you the ability to help yourself. 

“And then when you go to court, they go: ‘Oh, this person has done this and this and this. If you can do it on the outside, why would I send that guy to jail to do nothing’. Because you’re just going to come out worse.”

Sam, who takes a bit longer than Matiu to warm to conversation, says BASS’ establishment is rooted in his own experience of the criminal justice system. The 40-year-old spent nearly three years on bail, then two years at Ngawha Prison for manufacturing and supplying methamphetamine. 

“I understand how these guys are feeling,” he says. 

“I was on bail close to three years doing nothing. I was in the community the whole time and my lawyer never told me that I could have got a cultural report, or could have got references or have done programmes that would help my court case when it went to sentencing.”

 

He is adamant that prison fails to stem offending and did not want others to miss out on programmes and counselling which assist in rehabilitation and avoiding prison. 

 

“Once you’re in jail, I can tell you from experience you turn into a different person. Your whole character and mindset turns into this angry beast. 

 

“Here they can exercise and feel like they are part of the community and they can do their programmes and learn about their behaviour. That’s really important - feeling that you’re still in the community and that you’re a human, which really just falls away when you’re locked up.”

The born-and-bred Aucklander backs this up with a compelling financial argument. BASS residents pay $380 each week, which includes one meal a day and costs of utilities. The board, usually paid by Work and Income, amounts to about $20,000 a year. Alternatively, the annual cost of a prisoner is about $100,000.   

“Well, it definitely isn’t going to make me rich,” Sam says with a grin.

As we talk, he points out the property - about 1.5 acres in size - is a work-in-progress. Sam, whose expertise is in website design, had intended to open next year. That plan was scrapped when people heard what he was doing.

“There was a demand and need for the work, and a lot of lawyers were hounding me about it - that’s a regular daily thing,” he says. 

“A lot of these guys we’ve pulled out of jail. I go to their bail hearing, appear as NZ BASS and say we’re happy to take them, work with them, take them to their courses and get them court-ready for their sentencing.”

On the day we meet, Sam has had 11 applications via email that morning. A lawyer calling about paperwork for his client’s BASS application also interrupts us. 

“That happens all the time. It’s just so hard to get into a rehab and accommodation like this. There’s a real need for it,” he says. “In my mind, I’d like to eventually open one in every city.” 

We ask what it is like running the house and if authorities are supportive. Sam takes a moment to answer. 

“It’s nothing new, it’s just that a lot of people have tried to do this, and it can be hard to get past Police and Corrections. 

“At the end of the day, the police are in the business of locking people up, and we’re in the business of getting people out, so we’re never really going to get along,” he says warily. 

“But if we can say to them, we’re prepared to do this and that and that with defendants, then it can help mitigate some of the disagreements.” 

Sam notes two men have already breached bail conditions while at BASS, cutting their electronic monitoring bracelets and leaving the property.  

“When it happened, I just told the police. They’re back in jail now. It’s just an indication that they’re not ready or prepared for change. Once a guy makes up their mind that they’re not going to be held anywhere, in whatever place or institution, they’ll just run anyway - and you can’t really do anything about that.”

Regardless, bail decisions are made by a judge, and a lot are supportive of initiatives like BASS, he says.

“You’ve either got the punitive side of the justice system, or you’ve got this pathway which is an alternative. We don’t guarantee anything we do will keep them out of jail, but most of them know this is the last straw so they give it their best shot.”

Khylee Quince sitting on a concrete bench

Khylee Quince

Māori law academic Khylee Quince, associate professor at the Auckland University of Technology, says community-driven initiatives like BASS help address the impacts of inequality in the criminal justice system.  

An outspoken advocate for reforms addressing the disproportionate number of Māori in prison, Khylee says while BASS’ may be relatively minor compared to the “massive pipeline” to prison, it raises important questions about the direction of the criminal justice system.

She reiterates that sending people to remand because of their economic status or overcrowded living situation, rather than risk, is “totally wrong”. Placing these individuals – who are overwhelmingly Māori and Pacific - in residences like BASS would reduce prison numbers and likely make a significant difference in their lives and those of their whanau. 

Further, the potential of non-Crown organisations like BASS to address shortfalls in the criminal justice system must be considered within the context of Te Tiriti, she says.

“For example, Ngāpuhi Iwi Social Services has been doing a similar thing in Kaikohe for about a year now.

“They bought a couple of state houses to essentially provide bail for young people, partly because it is needed, but also it’s an assertion that: ‘These are our young people and we are going to look after them and the Crown can stay out of our business’”, the proud Ngāpuhi member says. 

However, that does not absolve the Crown of its responsibilities, Khylee clarifies.

Notably, when we discuss the same point with Sam, he says community-based bail initiatives should ultimately be run by marae and iwi groups. The inability of the Crown through Corrections and companies like Serco to run prisons which reduce reoffending and target rehabilitation show it is ill-suited to the job, he says.

Allowing them into this space risks producing “jails outside of jails”. 

Khylee elaborated on this, drawing on the principles of partnership enshrined in Te Tiriti.

“They [the Crown] say all this stuff about partnership and determination, and this is what it looks like. The big potential issues are with funding - particularly when you have settled iwi. Take Tainui as an example: Will the Crown say that they’re your offenders, so you pay for them? Or will it be a delegation of responsibility to them, or will they just fund something run by Tainui? It’s quite high-level stuff but it’s at the core of partnership.”

She adds that Māori have made it clear the only way to honour Te Tiriti is through fair partnership. Iwi do not want to be service deliverers, or contractors, or responsible for managing institutions built on Pākehā values, she says. 

Navigating the practicalities of that should be part of Hokai Rangi - Corrections’ new strategy for Māori. At a minimum, basic legislation or policy prioritising Māori organisations as partners of the Crown in this space is required. Clear direction about expectations of safety for defendants and the community is also needed, Khylee says. 

Meanwhile, a request for an interview with a representative of Corrections’ was returned via email. The department stated it was not associated with BASS and could not comment on the outcome of services “they [BASS] claim to provide”.