New Zealand : why are there so many Maori in New Zealand's prisons ?

New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the Western world, and more than half of the prison population is Maori. Journalist Aaron Smale goes inside to find out why and discovers that it is a reflection of the country’s deeper inequalities.

Turn out of suburbia and up a road that heads into a dead-end gully. A huge band of grey haze etched into the khaki hillside appears, a cross-hatched expanse stretched across a massive area with the blunt outlines of buildings barely visible. The grey haze grows closer, becomes more distinct. Layer upon layer of metal net fencing, fringed with razor wire, renders everything behind it into smudged shapes. The expression “behind the wire” becomes common in subsequent conversations - shorthand for the world inside this prison.

The first layer is like airport security on steroids. The staff are part of a vast bureaucratic apparatus that is there to perform a function, not offer a service. Along with the razor wire, they are what stands between more than 900 inmates and the freedom most citizens assume as a right.

Bag, belt and shoes pass through an X-ray machine. Step through a metal detector. A minor kerfuffle over paperwork that hasn’t been passed on before a lanky guard comes through a side-door to take us through the next layers. Lots of fumbling with keys, buzzing and clunking of heavy metal doors follows before we get through to a prison within the prison.

Everywhere there is wire. Sheets and sheets of wire netting, steel mesh, kilometres of fences alongside fences. Razor wire that looks like a tangled nest but on closer view is actually in a very precise pattern of loops that glisten with menace in the sun.

I’m asked if I want to talk to an inmate in the same way I’m asked if I’d like a cup of tea. Yeah, sure. But where to start. Their crime? Their family? What are they up to for Christmas?

His arrival is announced by the prison guard walking ahead of him, ushering him into the room with a gesture that shows politeness but also the power one has over the other.

I have been told nothing about him, so haven’t had time to prepare any thoughts or questions.

First impressions are all there is to go on.

He is good-looking with an athletic build. He carries himself with a degree of confidence but a demeanour that is uncertain, hesitant. He wears standard-issue shorts and a T-shirt without hems. Both are grey. He has socks and jandals on his feet.

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