Kane* is man with a lot to look forward to. He’s getting out of prison on parole after 15 months behind bars. He has three young children and supportive parents waiting for his return. And he has new strength in discovering his Maori identity.

A first timer, Kane served most of his sentence at Waikeria Prison’s Te Ao Marama unit.

Kane with one of the carved pou representing the kaupapa of Te Ao Marama.Te Ao Marama is one of whare (unit) around the North Island delivering Corrections’ national rehabilitation programme Te Tirohanga. Men who join the whare are chosen for their suitability and willingness to embrace the kaupapa Maori environment and begin a journey of change to live crime-free.

Kane is 28, articulate, fit and heavily tattooed. He’s also a convicted drug importer and one-time meth addict. But he says that is behind him now. Three months “in hell” on remand at Waikeria gave him time to think. He made a conscious decision to change and “seek any way that was going to help rehabilitate and get me out of jail faster”.

“I don’t want this to be my life.”  

He seized the opportunity to enter Te Ao Marama but admits feeling intimidated on his first day. “They’re all doing kapa haka and I probably looked like this honky-as white fulla. It actually scared me. I’d never done kapa haka in my life.”

Ata mai moment

Kane says he had an ‘ata mai’ moment (when the light switches on) soon after beginning the tikanga Maori programme and discovering te reo. At Te Tirohanga, te reo is woven into everyday activity and everyone learns to perform karakia, haka, and whaikorero and waiata.

“Learning my pepeha and mihi, I had a sense of accomplishment and self esteem that ignited a deeper understanding of who I am and where I come from.”

Everyone in Te Tirohanga begins with the Te Waharoa, a level two National Certificate in Maori inclusive of literacy and numeracy standards and linked to NCEA vocational pathways. That’s followed by the Mauri Tu Pae rehabilitation programme and the prison drug treatment programme.

At the drug treatment programme, Kane gained some insight about why he used drugs. “It was a coping mechanism, to mask my emotions, I felt like I didn’t have anybody to talk to, to understand me. I always knew that was the case but never understood it. While you’re on drugs you’re hearing but not listening; it distorts what you think.”

The kaupapa Maori environment has brought a spiritual awakening too, says Kane.

“We acknowledge our gods a lot through karakia. People underestimate the strength of having a strong wairua. You begin to appreciate things in your life aren’t just of your own doing.”

Kane grew up in Hamilton the eldest of three children with little connection to his maternal Maori roots, visiting his marae only once. He says he started smoking cannabis at 11 or 12 and later moved on to using meth and making money from importing the drugs that landed him in prison.

“Before I came to prison I really struggled with public speaking – now I can stand confidently in front of 60-70 people and speak in te reo.”

Kane and a fellow prisoner composed a haka together and he’s promised to perform it at his mate’s brother’s unveiling on his behalf. “He can’t be there so I’ll carry his mana, his wairua.”

PCO Eddie Harhihari outside Te Ao Marama.Te Ao Marama Principal Corrections Officer Eddie Harihari, who has seen the change in Kane and others first hand, is impressed with the impact Te Tirohanga is having.  “For me the biggest difference is there’s something more meaningful for them now. There’s a set pathway; they know what’s happening and when.”

In Te Tirohanga, programmes take precedence over work opportunities around the prison. “They know that once they’re here, there are no work opportunities for six months so they can concentrate on and complete the programmes they start.”

Facing the outside

Kane admits he’s nervous about leaving prison – the routine and structure – but he has a plan. He is close to completing his studies with The NZ Institute of Health and Fitness to become a personal trainer. Ultimately he wants to help youth with health and nutrition and training – and to steer them off the course he took.

“I’ve been there, done that. There’s no happiness in this life. I see people 50 years old and still in prison, still searching for something that’s not there, still addicted to drugs.”

And he’s learned to be mindful, to be conscious of the here and now and making decisions more carefully.

Most of all he’s looking forward to spending more time with his children.  “I feel like there’s still time to make up for what I’ve done. And I’ll be a role model. I’ve thought about all this. I know in myself when I look back on the person that I was before I came into prison … I know I don’t want to be that person again. I choose not to be that person.”

Whanau is what matters most, he says. “You find out who matters. It’s not your druggy friends who are there for you. It’s family. That’s the one thing I’m getting out of prison to – my family.”

*not his real name