Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash

Earlier this month, the Magnolia Project was invited to visit Waikeria prison in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Waikeria’s Māori Focus Unit

We began our visit at the Māori Focus Unit, where we were welcomed with a moving pōwhiri. A pōwhiri is a traditional welcoming ceremony involving a welcome call, singing, speeches, and hongi, where we pressed noses with our tangata whenua (hosts). We had spent the week learning and practising a Māori song for our part in the proceedings. After the pōwhiri, we shared kai (food), reflecting the Māori tradition of manaakitanga (hospitality). It was a memorable and powerful experience.

There are five Māori Focus Units across Aotearoa New Zealand prisons, each offering a range of tikanga-based courses and activities. They regularly involve iwi (local cultural groups) and prisoner-staff forums for decision-making. Tikanga means ‘the right way or thing to do at any given time’. It reflects an awareness of culture, norms, and ways of being and doing based on five core values that align well with the guiding principles of the Magnolia Project, particularly compassionate justice:

  • Whakaiti – humility.
  • Ko tau rourou and manaakitanga – altruism.
  • Whanaungatanga – others.
  • Tāria te wā and kaitiakitanga – long-term thinking, guardianship.
  • Tikanga Māori – cultural authenticity.

The Māori Focus Unit offers courses on Māori culture, language lessons, involvement from respected Elders, and daily participation in culturally meaningful rituals and ceremonies. In addition, each unit has a specialist worker who fosters the renewal of family and community relationships and assists in reintegrating the person in prison back into a supportive home environment.

Waikeria’s Totara Unit

We also visited the Waikeria’s remand unit, the Totara Unit. There, we met with staff and the prisoner representative group (the ruunanga) to discuss preventing violence in the unit and the importance of maintaining connections with family (or whanau, which translates as ‘family’ in English but also refers to the collective of people connected through common ancestry).

From these discussions, we agreed that providing Magnolia books to the children of the men in prison would be a good way to support both the men and their families. Thus, the Magnolia Book Project has gone global and is now in an Aotearoa New Zealand Prison. We have now donated a set of books for distribution at the next family day at the Totara unit. The ruunanga are excited to facilitate this process, and we are proud to be working with them. We are looking forward to hearing how it all goes!

Image: Associate Professor Armon Tamatea, University of Waikato.

We want to thank Associate Professor Armon Tamatea for introducing the Magnolia Project to prisons in Aotearoa New Zealand. For more information on the prison violence prevention project, go to: Nga Tūmanakotanga.


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