Locked Up Warriors: New Zealand’s Prison Problem

New Zealand’s imprisonment rates are among the worst in the developed world. We revisit a Maori family to examine why.

Despite its reputation for social justice and equality, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the western world.

One in two prisoners are indigenous Maori, even though they account for just 15 percent of the population. Maori are overrepresented in all sectors of the criminal justice system because of soaring rates of child poverty, school dropout, unemployment and family breakdown within indigenous communities.

Affiliation to US-style biker gangs also plays a part because gangs are seen as surrogate families. The first overseas chapters of Hells Angels were established in New Zealand. Over the decades gangs have become involved in violent crime, drug trafficking and brutal gang rapes. 

In response, the New Zealand prison system introduced cultural units and innovative programmes that try to connect Maori with their families instead of the gangs. These programmes also encourage prisoners to get back in touch with their cultural ancestry by learning traditions such as the Haka – the Maori warrior dance. But only half of the men in these units speak with their family and re-establishing that bond is not an easy task.  

In 2013, 101 East visited New Zealand – getting rare access to both prisons and the criminal underworld – to investigate why this peaceful South Pacific nation has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the Western world.

Four years on, REWIND returns to New Zealand to find out what became of Sirius Anderson, a young boy featured in the film who dreamed of one day becoming president of the Mongrel Mob.