Quick Facts

  • More than 50% of male inmates are Maori
  • 58% of the female prison population is Maori
  • 34% of the prison population are aged 20-29

Source: Department of Corrections

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.

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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.

Department of Corrections rules mean that he can't be identified, so we'll call him Michael. These rules mean his crime and the identity of his victim or the victim's family can't be revealed, which has the unintended consequence that any discussion is unbalanced and missing major elements of the story, particularly that of the victims. While there was extensive media coverage of their reactions, victims and offender can't be discussed in the same context.


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But what wasn't evident in that same media coverage was the reaction of the young man in front of me. He's articulate, but a restlessness lies just below the surface as we exchange small talk. It comes into full view when the elephant in the room introduces itself. He pauses for a moment when he mentions the length of his sentence and then inquires awkwardly: "Do I mention my crime?" It's up to him, I say.

"Manslaughter. I was the cause of somebody's death."

The whole basis of the conversation shifts with this revelation. Strangely, his hands seem more prominent. I later find out the details of his crime. They are horrific. 

When discussing the mundane, he is fluent and intelligent, but the closer the conversation moves towards the fact that he caused a person's death, the more his manner and the cadence of his speech alter, almost stuttering to a halt. His body language and mannerisms exude a mixture of shame, regret and grief.

I suggest obliquely that his prison sentence must give him a lot of time to think.

"Yeah." He pauses for a moment, reflecting. "About time, though ... I never gave myself time to think out there. Never, never, never seen that there was anything wrong with me. With my behaviour.

"I look back on who I was. What an idiot. When people asked me, 'What the hell were you on last night?' I wouldn't look at myself. I never looked at myself, that there was something wrong, or that something was out of whack. I always thought I was quite a together chap. I thought I was quite dapper. I thought I was the bee's knees. But coming in here, what a kick in the a*** that was."

He's not referring to the sentence itself. It's the effect his crime has had.

"Thinking about the pain I'd caused people, not only my victim's family but my family and another family that was involved. I see it as everything I'd done in my past was slowly leading …" the sentence breaks down and his voice trails off.

"I have come to terms with what I've done, but it's still hard for me to think about it," he says.

"With my crime, I didn't know that my assault had gone so far - as in, it hospitalised somebody and eventually they passed away. It was that major that I deserved to be where they wanted to send me, which was here."

He was shocked at his six-year sentence - he expected longer. And he has sometimes been shocked at the sentences other inmates are serving compared to his.

"Dudes just do one silly thing and come to jail. I've come across a lot of dudes in here that got a harsh lag [sentence]. I'm not trying to justify what they've done, but how I see it is that I've done the crime of being the cause of somebody's death. I'm looking at dudes in here that haven't done that and have gotten heavier lags than me, just for one mistake. They've got a lot of potential too. They've got brains, they're not mindless, they're not inconsiderate. You see dudes on the news that have committed their crime and they're just young Maori or young Polynesian. You meet them in here and how they're painted in the media is not how they actually are in person."

A number of things about Michael's profile are common to the other prison inmates.

For a start, Michael is Maori - and Maori make up more than half of the 8,000-odd male prison population in New Zealand. He is in his 20s. Around 34 percent of the prison population are between the ages of 20 and 29. And he is serving a sentence for violent crime, which makes up 37 percent of the types of offence committed by inmates.

Someone who knows more than most about Maori prisoners is Neil Campbell. He is from the Ngati Porou tribe and has worked in corrections for more than 20 years. For six years he was a prison guard at Paremoremo Prison, the highest-security facility for many of the country's worst offenders, some of whom will never be released. He then worked in cognitive behavioural therapy and later as Maori adviser for Mount Eden Prison. For the past three years he's been Director Maori at the Department of Corrections.

Of the cohort of Maori inmates he has seen, there are some familiar themes.

"The majority have problems with literacy and numeracy. The majority of offenders have some kind of drug or alcohol abuse problem, which is immediately attached to their offending behaviour. The majority of offenders will come from a dysfunctional family," Campbell says. "By dysfunctional, I mean there will be generational unemployment. Generational substance and alcohol abuse histories. Generational problems with lack of education. Generational problems of being disconnected from wider whanau [family] or support networks. Problems with adoption. Problems being raised in social welfare families.

"They all have a history and a whakapapa [ancestry] of offending that goes right back to a very young age, and in a lot of instances, before they were born. Hence the generational problem."

Campbell is quick to point out that understanding and analysing these factors is not to offer an excuse for their behaviour, but it does put their actions in some kind of context.

"A lot of the time, impulsivity is just connected to survival. It doesn't give an excuse for offending behaviour because, at the end of the day, everyone has still got choices. But if you begin to examine those things, you very quickly start to realise that people's choice pools are at varying depths."

'Give them nothing, take them nowhere'

When Campbell started as a prison guard, there was very little effort made to understand the factors that caused offending in the first place, or ways to mitigate the risk of reoffending. Like many of his colleagues, he came from an army background and the prison floor felt similar to a warzone. Might was right and that was reflected in the recruiting process.

Neil Campbell has worked in corrections for more than 20 years [Aaron Smale/IKON Media]

"When I started at Paremoremo Prison, I was by far the smallest officer in my block. I'm just under six foot. All the guys in that block were well over six-foot, between 6ft 3in and 6ft 5in was the average height. Huge guys. I often joke about how I only got asked two questions in my interview to be a prison officer. One of them was 'What regiment did you serve with in the army?' and the other was 'What position did you play in that regiment's rugby team?'

"I started work in this organisation where the mentality was 'Give them nothing, take them nowhere'. If they step out of line, smash them. Make prison as hard and unbearable as you can for them. The truth of the matter is we just released people that were angrier at society than when they came into the prison. A lot of our behaviour reinforced those negative values and beliefs that they already held on to from an early age from being subjected to that very approach."

This attitude backfired when a riot erupted in the prison while Campbell was on duty. There were a number of factors that contributed to what was a highly coordinated fracas, but one of the sparks was a cut-back in education programmes. For the prison staff, the programmes were just a way of keeping the prisoners distracted for several hours. For government officials, it was an expense they could no longer justify. But for prisoners, it was a source of hope that was being taken away.

What ensued, Campbell can only compare to being under fire as a soldier.

"When you have that many people that angry and everything becomes a weapon and there's a complete and utter breakdown of control and order, the fear level is off the scale. You know you're already dealing with people who have no qualms about visiting violence upon others, even killing people.

"You're dealing with New Zealand's most difficult, worst antisocial individuals. The violence is actually indescribable. The noise - it's complete and utter rage. When you see rage at its fullest, it's unnerving .... You just want out of that situation.

"What you've got to remember is that a lot of the people caught up in that are other prisoners. And there's no escape from it," he explains.

The riot was a catalyst for change, albeit slowly and in a fashion that wasn't always particularly coordinated.

"There had to be an attitude change to giving people rehabilitation that gave them a sense of hope and a sense that there's a future for me if I'm able to do these things. Equally, we had to start employing staff who better reflected the communities they're going to go back out into and role-modelled the behaviour that we wanted them to exhibit."

Around the same time, some fundamental questions were being asked about why Maori figured so prominently in crime and incarceration numbers and what should be done about it.

A growing body of statistics about how Maori fare in the justice system make clear that for similar offences Maori get a rougher deal at every stage of the criminal justice system.

The deception of simple answers

Judge Sir David Carruthers has worked in virtually every stage of the system. He has been the chief youth court judge, the chief district court judge and the head of the parole board. He is currently the chair of the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

He cautions anyone who wants simplistic explanations or answers to the problem of crime or its punishment. "If someone is giving you simple answers, you can be almost sure that they're not true. There is no one simple answer to a complicated question like this, which other countries struggle with as well, particularly those with colonised populations."

He believes that in New Zealand's criminal justice system, in the wider context of history and society at large, Maori haven't always been over-represented in criminal statistics.

"One-hundred-and-sixty years ago that was not the case here. Do you know the population that was grossly over-represented in the bad health, the bad education, the bad justice statistics? The answer is, the Irish."

Carruthers says it shows that trends are not irreversible or inevitable, although they do have historical roots. However, he does raise concerns about the effectiveness of many current practices.

"The justification for prisons is to protect other people from dangerous folk. But as a deterrent, I don't know of any evidence that it's successful in that respect."

Another example is whether short prison terms of a few months do more harm than good for the offender and those he has contact with.


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"They do a stint long enough to bugger up their family arrangements, to lose their jobs, come out of prison with nothing, and then the cycle continues. No programmes, nothing learned."

Longer sentences aren't necessarily that useful in the long term either.

"Does that serve us well as a country? It satisfies a punitive demand, but does it actually achieve what we want?"

Carruthers gives a wry smile when the words "public perception" and "headlines" are mentioned in the same breath. He says there has been a massive upswing in media coverage of crime in New Zealand in the past 10 years and believes this is because crime coverage is a cheap way to fill pages. But it can greatly distort not only the true picture of crime but what the average person actually thinks about crime and the political solutions.

"I've spoken to huge numbers of public groups around the country and they're always much more generous than the newspapers would make you think they are. Most people are very inclined to give folk a chance and support them if they want to do well."

He knows from his time on the parole board that granting parole is often portrayed as a risk to the community. But the whole purpose of parole is to reduce the risk by managing an offender's reintegration into society in anticipation of their inevitable release. The alternative is to simply kick them out of the gate without any of those support structures in place.

"The international research shows that released-on-parole is something like four to five times more successful at preventing reoffending than automatic release at the end of the term," Carruthers says. But that's not a headline.

There are some significant changes happening to the way offenders are sentenced and the rights of victims in processes that often fly below the public radar, such as restorative justice and Rangatahi courts, or youth courts for offenders between the ages of 12 and 16, which are held at a traditional meeting house and integrate aspects of Maori protocols. These courts are also geared towards making the young offender face their victims. 

But the most effective remedy is prevention in the first place, according to the judge.

Angry boys

Sergeant Rob Woodley of the Ngapuhi tribe has served as a policeman in South Auckland - the largest Maori and Polynesian urban area in the world - for the past 20 years and has witnessed the factors that lead to criminal offending.

For the past 14 years, he has worked as general manager of the Genesis Youth Trust. He is the only sworn police officer at the organisation which works with at-risk youth to try to prevent them adding to the crime statistics.

He points to the usual suspects of educational failure and family breakdown as the biggest contributors to young Maori heading towards criminal behaviour.

"Most kids that we see do come from lower socio-economic areas. Unemployment is an issue at home. The breakdown in the family unit is really where it starts. Most of the kids are boys. If you dig into those families, you'll find the father is not present or the father is an offender himself, involved with a gang himself. The kid is just following in the footsteps of what he sees at home."

'If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't be here. I'd give an arm and a leg to go back and see the younger me and teach him a few things,' says inmate Michael [Aaron Smale/IKON Media]

"Education is not valued like other families would value education. Low literacy is common through a lot of our kids. They'll be 14, 15 years old, but they have a reading age of a six-year-old. Quite common. It starts at home, so when the home life isn't good and they're not connecting with a school, they're probably not connecting with something that is a pro-social activity, like sports or performing arts. They'll lean back on their peers," Woodley explains. "That's where the youth gangs get involved, particularly in South Auckland."

When a child is referred to them, they have to take a holistic approach that includes the whole family. The first thing they are trying to do is build relationships with the children and their families and then find out what some of the root causes of the behaviour are.

Then the hard work begins.

"Angry boys. We get a lot of angry boys. What is the root cause of that anger?"

Part of the reason Woodley got involved in working with youth was because he wanted to get to young offenders while they were still malleable enough to help them to change direction. Most of his staff are from social work or counselling backgrounds.

He acknowledges that police have had to change their tactics in dealing with Maori, although the accusation of bias can be a slap in the face for him as a Maori officer.

"I was pulling over a drunk driver, the car was driving all over the road. I pulled him up and there he was, dreadlocks, Maori fulla. He goes, 'You're just doing it because I'm [Maori].' I said, 'No mate, I'm Maori myself. You're driving all over the road and you're drunk.'"

While police are still there to respond to crisis situations, there has been a greater emphasis put on targeting the causes of crime and prevention, says Woodley.

"The first two of those are youth and family. And then organised crime through gangs. That's Genesis; we're dealing with youth offenders, we're working with families who offend and organised crime through the youth gangs."

Around 70 percent of those Genesis deals with, according to Woodley, either don't reoffend or their offending doesn't escalate.

But there are always those for whom intervention either never happened, came too late or was simply ineffective.

While a prison sentence and loss of liberty can be a rude awakening for many offenders, for some it's also a respite from the chaos and stress that their lifestyle entails.

Wiremu (not his real name) is part way through a seven-and-a-half-year sentence for dealing methamphetamine. Although he had a good job at the time of his arrest, jail gave him a break from the constant stress that his drug consumption and dealing was causing.

"It's just like, thank God, that's over. The old rollercoaster, the ups and downs," Wiremu says.


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"You're always looking over your shoulder, the cops, the gangs, the haters. There's all that stuff that comes with it."

His prison sentence and the chance to get free of drugs gave him the added benefit of being able to think clearly.

"You don't really notice the effects the drugs are having when you're on them yourself. It's not really until you're clean and you're looking at the people coming in and living with you and you're like ... hell, he's strung out, what [has] he been on? Even alcohol, I couldn't believe how bad people would get on alcohol."

The biggest downside was the effect his incarceration has had on his family, which has made him more determined to change.

"The judge said eight-and-a-half years to start off with. Then it hit home ... what about my family? I didn't even look around to wave out.

"I don't want to be in a place like this any more. I've got two kids. My wife has stuck with me, so yeah, I'm lucky. I really am lucky. It is tough on them. She's struggled, she's struggled."

Michael, the first prisoner, took a while to adjust not just to the prison environment, but how to think about his future.

"The first six months in jail is usually the depression stage," he explains. "People are down on themselves, they don't talk to nobody, it takes them a while to come out of their shell and get used to their environment.

"The second six months it's getting to know who you can trust, see who to stay away from, making good relationships with people and staff. From then on, in the next year, you've got a plan. You know where you want to be, you know where you don't want to be, you know how to get there. You just need the resources."

In the past, those resources simply weren't available. But now, owing to a policy shift, education and drug and alcohol rehab are now a big part of prison sentences. But they also undergo programmes to understand their behaviour and the underlying thinking that led to it. For many, it is not a pleasant experience to finally be confronted with the responsibility for what they've done.

Michael found it hard to see his thinking and the way it led to his offending mapped out.

Fifty percent of male prison inmates are Maori [Aaron Smale/IKON Media]

"How many red flags there were, warning signs, early warning signs. How many times I could have left it alone, [used] exit strategies .... When I saw that in the offence mapping, that broke my heart.

"If I knew back then what I know now, I wouldn't be here right now. I'd give an arm and a leg to go back in time to see the younger me and teach him a few things."

Cast adrift to fend for themselves

Since the early 2000s, five prisons have created Maori Focus Units - prison blocks within prisons that focus on addressing some of the issues that Maori offenders bring with them. For many, it's a chance to learn some basic skills and to understand their identity as Maori in a positive light.

Campbell says the units offer a chance to address some of the deep-seated issues that Maori offenders often bring with them to prison.

"A lot of these people have never been integrated in the first place," says Campbell. "How do you reintegrate someone that's never been integrated into the community?

"We have an obligation and responsibility as part of their sentence to work with them while they're in our care to send them back to the community better off than they were when they came to us. So with better skills, better cognition, better reasoning, all the rest of it in the hope that it will reduce the likelihood of them reoffending."

Campbell believes there are some offenders who should not see the light of day - he has dealt with many of them in the highest-security wing of Paremoremo Prison. But he says the vast majority have the potential to be rehabilitated and reintegrated. He says this is the hard option, but it is one that is worth pursuing, if only because it costs less in the long term.

One of the rehabilitation and reintegration programmes being run under Corrections is Te Whare Oranga Ake at Hawke's Bay Prison near Hastings. The programme is based right next to the prison, but "outside the wire". There are four four-bedroom flats where 16 men live during the last months of their sentence.

How do you reintegrate someone that's never been integrated into the community?

Neil Campbell - Director Maori, Department of Corrections

The programme was originally a pilot set up by Pita Sharples, a prominent Maori politician who recently retired from parliament. For more than two years, it has been run by a private contractor, Choices Kahungunu Health Services.

Manager Sam Christie of the Ngati Kahungunu tribe says the aim is to make sure the men have some basic skills and structures in place before they are released. These include employment, accommodation, whanau, or family support and community involvement. All of these are built on a base of Maori cultural practices.

"One of these guys is going to be my neighbour, so I want him to have some good skills around making good choices."

While there are drug and alcohol programmes, education programmes and a number of behavioural programmes inside prison, offenders need some basic things in place to minimise their risk of reoffending. Otherwise, they go back to what they know.

Many offenders are given a cheque when they are released by Corrections for the paid work they have done while serving their sentences. But it's fairly uncommon for most to have a bank account.

"They've got nowhere to put it, so they're jumping through your window or my window until that clears. That's high-risk. We get guys to get bank accounts open - that's one of the first things we try and do when they get over here," Christie says.

Probably the most important thing for them to put in place is employment, and Te Whare Oranga Ake has had a good strike rate in getting those in the programme into jobs. Many of the employers find them reliable as they are being supported by the programme and living in a structured environment.

It seems so basic that it begs the question of why only 16 offenders at Hawke's Bay prison, which has more than 670 inmates, are being offered this sort of help.

Christie shrugs and smiles.

"We can't be everything to everyone. We've just got to be smarter about who we do pick and do a really, really good job. We know we've done a good job if they're not back in prison within the next 12 to 16 months. That's usually when they fall over."

He adds that they're getting another four beds in the unit soon, and that number will increase further in time. Part of the problem is that prison managers are nervous because if anything goes wrong, they wear it. Like the recent incident in which the paedophile and murderer Phillip John Smith bolted from a temporary release programme and managed to get to Brazil before being caught. Cases like these increase that fear. This incident had an effect on inmates who were making good progress but were suddenly kicked back to square one in a bureaucratic backlash.

A big part of the programme is to make sure they have good support structures in place when they leave by having good accommodation and whanau [family] support around them when they move into the community.

Makere Riwaka-Love of the Te Ati Awa and Tuwharetoa tribes works in the Maori Focus Unit at Rimutaka Prison to help inmates connect with whanau so they have solid support networks when they leave.

Tracking down the right people can be a challenge in itself, particularly when offenders' backgrounds are often highly dysfunctional or they have simply been cast adrift to fend for themselves.

"We find that for a number of reasons there are tane [men] that don't have whanau. My role is to see how I can link them back to who they belong to.

Makere Riwaka-Love says education, employment and secure whanau [family] are the key factors in turning prisoners' lives around [Aaron Smale/IKON Media]

"There's always someone in the whanau; it's a matter of doing the research to find them and reconnect them. It's finding that person who can be a catalyst for change," Riwaka-Love says.

After an initial assessment if there are immediate family members still involved in the prisoner's life, she will talk to them. The families are often struggling with the same issues that led to the offender's crime.

"What they will talk to me about is how difficult life has been for them. Many of our whanau [families] are in crisis and are struggling."

Riwaka-Love names education, employment and secure whanau as the key factors in preventing offending and helping offenders turn their lives around.

But many programmes focus on the individual rather than trying to involve their whanau, which is often where the problems start, but may also be where the solutions lie.

"We can have a number of programmes for our tane [men] inside or coming through probation or through the police. But whanau aren't always included well in that journey. We need to spend more time creating more resilient whanau, who are able to cope with the stresses out there so our tane don't come inside, and our wahine [women] don't come inside."

Where problems start, where solutions lie 

While gangs are generally seen as high-risk in contributing to reoffending, this is no longer a given. Many older gang members have decided they want something different for their children and grandchildren.

Christie says the different government departments should, where appropriate, try to work with those gang members who have changed.

"We had a life member of the Black Power [gang] living in the same house as a life member of the [Mongrel] Mob. I'm thinking, if you two can get on in here, what's stopping you from getting on out there?

"I'm quite lucky in that we've got some guys who don't want their kids, their grandkids, to go through what they did. The Department of Corrections is trying to draw up the strategy, but I think we've got it wrong. I think we should be supporting the gangs themselves to develop that strategy for them."

Campbell agrees and says he's seen a number of gang members make significant changes in their lives and those of their families. He says the public perception of gang members as the bad guys is simplistic and ignores the fact that you can't simply impose a solution on a group of people just because a politician thinks it's a good idea.

"At the very least, we should be finding out from those people, well, what worked for you? What was it? Was it the rehab? Was it the type of support you've got around you? A conversation based on those things alone is worthwhile.

"If you don't involve them in the solution, whatever plan you come up with is destined for failure."

Edge Te Whaiti is one of those gang members who has been having constructive conversations with not only police and Corrections but also other gang members. A longtime member of the Mongrel Mob gang, he got together with members of rival gangs to work on ways to improve the lives of those closest to them.

They initially got involved helping police quell an outbreak of murders among youth gangs in South Auckland.

"Our president was one of the lead men that led the charge on stopping that youth violence. He pretty well organised the traditional gangs to come together. Somewhere, they're going to be connected back to one of us somewhere along the line. We brought that one to a halt."

Te Whaiti believes the various government agencies have to recognise that it might be gangs themselves who can resolve gang problems.

"When you need a plumber, call a plumber. When you have a gang problem, don't call a social worker. Who is going to mediate that, who is going to turn it around? It ain't going to be a cop."

He says older gang members like himself are trying to convince a younger generation that jail is a waste of their time and life.

"I think the message is getting through to our brothers, you fullas are of no use to anybody when you're in prison. That's about behaviours. If you get the behaviours right you don't have to worry about the policeman."

Campbell says there is also a need to shift stereotypes about Maori that have built up in the public mind, even among Maori themselves.

"One of the things I'm quick to point out to Maori communities is [that] at any given time, over 95 percent of Maori aren't being managed by Corrections. The minute you tell a group of Maori that, you want to see the look on their faces. 'What'd you just say?' Ninety-five percent of us aren't being managed by Corrections? We can fix it. We're talking about five percent of us. The rest of us, we've got the recipe. We know what it takes."

Edge Te Whaiti, a Mongrel Mob gang member, works to encourage communication between rival gangs [Aaron Smale/IKON Media]

In an overwhelming number of cases, Campbell says, the victims of Maori crime are Maori themselves. The hurt and damage is done to their own.

Despite the hard work to change his thinking and behaviour, Michael knows that facing those he has victimised will be the hardest thing he has to do.

"I'm hoping to get in touch with them someday, just so they can have their time to vent their hurt and pain and frustration and anger they may have on me."

"That's been my focus since I've been in here: How can I make it up to the family? I know they're not going to give me the time of day. But that's my main goal - that's my priority. I think about that every day."

Another version of this article has been published in a New Zealand-based magazine, Mana.

Source: Al Jazeera