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My co-leader, Dr Pita Sharples, has had to leave, and so I am offering up this korero, the korero which Dr Sharples had prepared on this Bill.
I heard a story yesterday, about a girl called Sally. Last summer Sally decided school was not for her. She just didn’t want to go.
Turns out, when the class went swimming, she’d been put into an embarrassing situation of having to tie her shoelaces – a task she wasn’t prepared to perform.
And after having suffered the shame of being taunted about having a parent in prison, she just didn’t want another hassle in her life.
Tying shoelaces had been just one of the things that slipped by as the family coped – or didn’t – with the situation of incarceration.
Mr Speaker, I have to admit that this Bill has wreaked a little bit of havoc on our normally serene caucus. We have been literally torn apart by the complexity of associating children with prison.
We all know that children who suffer the fate of losing their parent to prison, feel vulnerable, feel stigmatised, feel at risk.
They experience the full gamut of emotions from embarrassment and shame to rebellion and anger. They live with the grief of loss. They feel the fear of the unknown, unable to protect their parent who is now caged beyond prison walls.
Being separated from our loved ones is sheer and utter hell.
If we, as parents suffer the misfortune of being kept away from our families, because of the job we love; just imagine how hard it is for children to be separated because of the fact of crime.
I want to acknowledge the amazing work of PILLARS, Nga Pou Whakahou; which goes on, year after year, with approximately 12,000 children every year, who are sentenced to separation from their imprisoned parent. Yet despite this PILLARS suggests that the children of prisoners remain largely invisible.
PILLARS have a simple statement that sums up this Bill: “Paying for crimes they did not commit”.
What crime did the newborn baby, born to a woman who finds herself in prison, commit?
What crime did the six month old baby commit - that rips them from the breast of their mother?
What crime did the one year old child commit that is punishable by separation?
Mr Speaker, I think of my mokopuna, and the absolute last place in the world I would wish them to be, would be prison.
I think of my children, and if anyone of them had the misfortune of being imprisoned, I can but imagine the agony they would experience in being torn from their children.
The dilemma we face with this Bill is really, how does one ever evaluate the true impact on a child of losing their parent to prison?
We simply don’t know.
We know that since the self-care units have been established at Arohata Prison, it is hardly as if the flood gates have opened. There were four women in 2004; six in 2005 and four in 2006. Fourteen in all. Hardly enough to get excited over.
And yet clearly the Minister got pretty excited. The initial costings to meet peak periods of demand were estimated at approximately $19.6 million in capital expenditure and $6.5 million in annual operating expenditure.
They must be pretty flashy facilities at that sort of costing.
Faced with the multi-million dollar proposal, the Minister then came back and responded that they could make do with existing accommodation, and here’s the thing, “subject to the availability of resources”.
We’ve all heard that before. May as well say, no means no.
We in the Maori Party asked for further clarification about the financial projections for this Bill.
We asked, did it include:
medical facilities for the mothers and babies?;
were the facilities of a dormitory type; individual rooms or cells; or are they independent living facilities (a la flats);
we asked are there shared flatting arrangements?
we asked for details on staff numbers, specialist services available and the types of rehabilitative programmes available.
We didn’t get a response, but the questions still remain.
And really, that is symptomatic of our collective view of this Bill.
The questions remain.
If our aspirations are for children to be nurtured under the protection of their mother, wouldn’t our efforts be better put to use in promoting for the increased use of community sentences?
Surely it would be preferable for children to be raised in their own home with their mothers serving home detention; than to inflict the violent, brutal environment of the prison upon them?
We wonder what the international empirical evidence says.
Will adults remember that they were born and raised in a prison the first couple of years of their life?
Will they remember the bars, the guards, the prison walls?
Or will they remember being nurtured, breast-fed, held and loved by the person who brought them into the world?
Much of what shapes these formative years, may well be alleviated through design and attention to detail.
Many of the women’s prisons across America have taken on a major transformation in their visiting rooms.
Instead of children paying for crimes they did not commit, by being ushered into dark, cold unattractive corridors, they are playing freely in rooms decorated with Disney characters, toys, books and child-friendly décor.
What we can all accept, is that the early childhood attachments are crucial to child development. But the jury is out on how best to support and promote that early bonding experience.
In New York, there is a correctional facility for women where their babies are allowed to stay with Mum, until the age of two.
At that time, the child is then transferred to their extended family or the state, while still continuing to have the benefit of visits with mum. The research from that facility indicates that these children have a much higher chance of being healthier than being removed and raised in a home where the early nurturing did not take place.
There is no room for absolutes; no certainties.
Some children are far better off being cared for by family members. Some children fare far worse through being nurtured in a home limited by poverty and economic hardship.
Other children flourish in environments where there are consistent caring adults, assuring them they are loved, and they are secure.
The point is, there must be every opportunity for children to be nurtured, to have access to support, to enjoy all of the experiences that build strength and vitality.
Is such an ideal possible in prison?
The Government clearly believes so.
Is it possible that a prison can provide safe, abuse-free and secure environments for children to grow up in?
These are just some of the many, many questions our caucus has struggled with, throughout this Bill.
Ultimately, however, we know that every child born, is a child born in to whanau, hapu and iwi.
We know that those same whanau, hapu and iwi must each, in turn, ask questions of themselves, as to what is the best possible outcome for their babies, their mokopuna.
The Bill sets in place a process by which the mother enters into a parenting agreement.
Our preference would be that these parenting arrangements are agreements with the greater whanau; giving credence to the premise that our children are truly at the heart of the family.
Finally, we congratulate Sue Bradford for bringing this important issue to the Parliament. And though there have been some issues, today I can tell you, we have three votes for you.
For far too long, these children have been ignored in the public debate; a debate which tends to focus on crime and punishment, rather than the fate of dependent children.
What we say is that if our way of life fails the child; it fails us all.
Koina te korero mo tënei ra.
Just on a personal note, while we have some issues in respect to the whole notion of our babies in prison we did have some research and touched base with people at the coal face who confirmed that having children at those early ages was a very difficult issue to come to grips with.
Ka nui te mihi ki a koe, tena tatou katoa.