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Sharples - PILLARS Opening: Auckland

PILLARS Opening: Auckland
Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader of the Maori Party
Tuesday 22 April 2008; 10am

Every Christmas, there is a standard feature that grabs space in every local paper.

It’s the prison Christmas menu. Last year, incidentally, it consisted of a portion of chicken, a serving of vegetables and luxury of luxuries, a Christmas mince pie. Hardly something to get excited about one would think, but the four dollar a day diet in our penal institutions falls into the same category as a series of other items that appear to fascinate readers.

You know the stories – those that ask WHY are prisoners playing petanque, watching flat-screen telly, getting access to Playstations, Xboxes, internet and benefiting from the luxury of underfloor heating?

Yet without fail, every Christmas, there are also articles missing from the paper which tell a different story than the lavish dinner in the School of Hard Knocks.

The stories about families living in shame or despair. Families who have become socially ostracized due to the crime of their loved one inside. Families with children who may have been bullied or teased or worse yet, treated with silence as society ignores the impact of their parent being in prison. Families who are desperately seeking understanding, who want to share what is happening to them, who are struggling with their own survival.

The way our society responds to the challenge of incarceration depends entirely on whose stories are told, whose experiences are shared.

Communities, whanau, hapu, iwi, our families have the ultimate responsibility for shaping our own story of crime and order, for laying out the fabric that shapes the way in which offenders and victims are treated.

Today is a key moment in altering the look of that fabric.

Today we have an Aotearoa First –a unique service which provides support and accommodation for mothers released from prison.

We are here today to celebrate a new start to give women a supportive place to stay with their children while they sort out somewhere new to live.

But it is more than a halfway home we are celebrating today – important as that is in its own right.

We are celebrating the courage of all of those who are prepared to stand up and say criminal behaviour affects not only the immediate victim but also offenders, families and the wider community - and as such, offenders, families and the wider community all have a vital role in making the changes necessary to write a different story.

We are celebrating:

- Ana White – the Auckland Manager of PILLARS;

- Verna McFelin, the Chief Executive of PILLARS;

- Initiatives such as the Books in Prison Trust, which was launched at Mt Eden Women’s Prison back in 1999 and has been helping hundreds of women to pick up on the challenge of literacy to help create the turn-around they need;

- Housing New Zealand which has provided this wonderful home;

- Child, Youth and Family, gambling charities and other philanthropic trusts who have invested in the vision;

 And we celebrate the commitment and dedication of those people in our community who care – those champions of justice who take the time to mentor the children of inmates; to visit prisons, to sit alongside families and share their journey – the volunteers.

I want to particularly acknowledge PILLARS - Nga Pou Whakahou.

Today is an amazing moment to hold up high the record of PILLARS as you celebrate your twentieth year of support to the children and families of prisoners.

PILLARS started off in Christchurch in 1988, and from what I understand, it started off by being a small support group in a rapidly overcrowded lounge, and Verna McFelin has been doing the hard yards ever since.

Except that - for people like Verna and Ana – the hours creating policies, negotiating Memorandums of Understanding, developing forms, working through challenges such as risk management, resource consent, relationships with community probation and with the prisons themselves, haven’t been so much about hard yards but a calling, a devotion to a cause that has taken over their lives.

Today is a day to recognize the many unsung heroes who have volunteered to work towards a crime-free society by providing mentoring and support to families.

They are the champions who have paddled the boat against the rising tide of intolerance in which society increasingly seems to be demanding harsh retribution for criminals and longer sentences.

They are the advocates who speak up for a different world than the one ruled by the court of public opinion and the law of penal populism. Penal populism that results in policies designed to appeal to a majority of voters, policies which may be electorally attractive but unfair, focused on locking up our problems and throwing away the key.

PILLARS challenges that mentality. PILLARS is literally in our face, telling us that unless we work with the children of prisoners and their families, we are doomed to a future of inter-generational offending and ever-rocketing incarceration rates.

This house is about making a change for the better. It is about teaching the tamariki different ways of relating, and through helping the children on to a different path, we know in turn their mums will be able to move forward in a more constructive way.
It is so exciting to be able to bear witness today, to a model which will have a profound influence on the women and the families who will be cared for under this roof.

The research suggests that children of prisoners are six to seven times more likely to end up in prison than any other child. That is a pretty hefty statistic which Auckland PILLARS is going to address - and I know that through doing that – the crime rates, the prison population, the social perceptions will be radically altered.

I was reading some interesting research by Sophie Goldingay, who talked about the phenomenon of Jail Mums – the relationship between adult female prisoners and young female prisoners in Christchurch Women’s Prison.

That group of young women in prison is a highly vulnerable and marginalized sector of the prison population. Apparently last year there were only 35 female prisoners aged between 14-19 years. What Sophie Goldingay found is that the relationship some of these young women formed with these so called jail mums, was incredibly important in making a difference.

The relationships helped the younger women to feel supported, to be protected against potential bullying or threatening behaviour such as stand-over tactics, or isolation and exclusion from the wider groups. Jail Mums helped to stand up for these young women in a way which minimized the damage to their mental health or emotional wellbeing.

What the study revealed which was particularly interesting to me was that there was a distinctive respect for elders demonstrated by the younger women which she saw as a key dimension in Maori cultural and spiritual wellbeing.

Goldingay had discussed these relationships with the kuia, Kiwa Hutchen and also with Tania Mataki – both women whom have spent a lifetime supporting the whanau of women in prison – and was convinced that the connections with elders and the associated respect was a feature which distinguished the women in our prisons from other nations.
The strength of kaupapa and tikanga Maori was seen as being a key factor in assisting the women, both young and old, onto the journey of rehabilitation.

This opening is a chance today, to pay my tributes and that of the Maori Party – to our kuia and koroua, who regularly take time to care, who go behind bars to reach out and offer their support.

It is a chance today to say thank you to all those who make a difference. To the people who contribute presents to the annual Angel Tree project. The people who take part in the ‘free as an eagle’ survival guide to life outside. The people who devote themselves to being mentors, to offer wraparound support, to be friends of pillars, to offer new hope, new relationships, new ways of being.

And it is only fitting to acknowledge the huge legacy created by Ka Wahine ki Otautahi Trust whom I understand has only recently, sadly, closed its doors. Ka Wahine has had an enormous impact in the lives of women inmates and their children, by offering them a place in which they can turn their lives around. I presume that funding must be the major factor in the decision to close, as the need, if anything, is surely becoming more and more urgent to provide supported accommodation for our ever-growing prison population.

And so finally today, I wonder if this wonderful opening also offers us an opportunity to each of us ask ourselves, what more could we be doing to invest in our future?

We know that this investment is about more than the 8000 prisoners in our country’s jails, it extends further to about 12500 children in the community and the future they face.

Children who may be confused, who may be questioning, who may be already traveling a pathway to prison. PILLARS describe these children as paying for a crime they did not commit.

Finally, I want to end with the words of a mother who has been through hell and back, who has endured violence, her husband imprisoned, her own life traumatized with the impact of drug abuse. A mother who is also an international celebrity, Whitney Houston. Her classic love song, The Greatest Love of All, could well become the anthem for this house we open today.

I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside

If this programme is to be truly successful, the Greatest Love of All for our children must remain our collective priority, so that together, all together, we can become pillars of hope and support to create enduring change in our lives.


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