As a youngster, Kim Workman didn’t have the whakapapa (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Rangitaane), the academic record, or the interests to indicate he’d have a career dominated by controlling crime — and then limiting the damage done by the Corrections system. But that’s the path he began travelling more than 50 years ago.
It has led him to an almost unrivalled grasp of what succeeds, and what doesn’t, in dealing with those who fall foul of the law. And here he passes on to Dale some of the insights he has gathered along the way.
Kia ora, Kim. Well, as we often do with these e-tangata interviews, let’s start with you telling us something about your whānau and whakapapa.
Yeah, sure. My great-great-grandfather John Stanton Workman was a Scottish whaler. Came over here to New Zealand in 1836 as a cabin boy on his uncle’s whaling ship, and he whaled extensively in the south seas. But he ended up just off Kapiti Island on Tokomapuna, a little wee island that had a whaling station.
Then he met my great-great-grandmother Rewhaunga who had been taken captive by Te Rauparaha when she was just a young girl. He liked the look of her. By that time, he was around 20, I think. And he negotiated her release — and they became an item. She came, originally, from the Wairarapa, from the hapū of Ngāti Hinewaka at Cape Palliser. She had pretty strong whakapapa to other hapū from the southern Wairarapa. And she was a cousin of Piripi Te Maari-o-te-Rangi, who was the leader of the resistance against the Crown, around the acquisition of Lake Wairarapa. Piripi led the Wairarapa people for over 40 years in their efforts to resist the government pressure to take control of the lake, right up until the time of his death in 1895.
So that was her background. And she had a reputation as the spokesperson for the Māori wives of whalers — to make sure they were being treated properly. I sometimes think I get my “speaking out” genes from her.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised. How many in your whānau, Kim, and what was your old man doing, and mum, when you were a little guy?
My Dad, George, was an ambulance driver. He met my mother, Peggy, who came from an Irish background. She was a nurse. They were both at the Greytown hospital. And they married in 1936.
Although Dad drove the ambulance, his goal in life was to be a market gardener. It was difficult for a Māori to borrow money in those times, but he saved his pennies and, when he was 48, he had enough saved to buy five acres and he started growing cash crops there — and working as a jobbing carpenter in the winter.
Our parents worked very hard and, eventually, when Dad retired at the age of about 68, he had acquired over 45 acres.
They were tough times, but all the whānau were expected to pitch in and help. I have three sisters. I’m the only son.
But, apparently, market gardening wasn’t for you. You joined the police instead. Why?
Well, I was a failure at school, Dale. I sat School Certificate twice — and got lower marks the second year I sat. I was getting into a bit of trouble as well. I played in a dance band for a while, initially as a 14-year-old.
In those days — and we’re talking the early and mid 1950s — when you played in a dance band, they gave you lots of alcohol. That was part of the deal, really. And I developed quite a taste for liquor at an early age. Also, I was starting to branch out a little, and my parents were becoming worried. So the local policeman and my father hatched a plot and recommended me for the police cadet scheme which had just started.
And, to everybody’s surprise, I was accepted. I didn’t have any say in it. In fact, I didn’t really want to be there. But there I was on the scheme and doing 18 months training at the Trentham Military Camp. It was sort of a boot camp environment, but I quite enjoyed it — and ended up spending the next 16 years as a police officer.
Then, in 1976, when I was due to be promoted from senior sergeant to inspector, I was starting to feel a little unhappy about the police work. It was the time of the dawn raids on Pacific people. I was resisting that. And I was resisting some of the emphasis on crime control too.
So I decided to go to a career planning firm to have a psychometric test to see if there might be something else that I could do. And the results came back saying that I should never consider a career in the army or the police.
That was a bit late though, seeing I’d already been there for 16 years. But then I managed to get a job with the Ombudsman’s office, as a senior investigating officer, focusing on complaints from prisoners, and complaints against the police, because there was no Police Conduct Authority in those days.
In the course of that work, were there some issues that were of concern to you — and that helped shape your attitude towards the penal system and prison reform?
Yes, there were a few issues, Dale, although some of that also stemmed from my time in the police after I started on the streets in 1959. That was when the Māori urban migration was at its height. And I became really concerned at the regularity with which Māori would come to the attention of the police. Māori youth especially.
The Māori youth apprehension rate rose 50 percent from 1954 to 1958 — and a lot of that was due to the police attitude toward Māori. A good many of the police had never had any dealings with Māori before. And they saw them as sort of different. As outsiders who were noisy when they went into town. Often singing and joking. And they didn’t behave like Pākehā behaved.
So Māori got more than their fair share of attention — and that worried me.
In my work in the Ombudsman’s office, I would follow up complaints by visiting and listening to prisoners. The prison system at that time was pretty basic. It hadn’t really changed from colonial times — and was very militaristic. Like the Prussian army. The staff had nine or 10 different ranks.
On the other hand, in a lot of the prisons, the treatment of the prisoners was rough and ready but humane. Often there were good relationships between the prison officers and the prisoners. But there were also cases when somebody was beaten up and the officers would try to cover it up.
You ended up doing quite a lot of other mahi too, didn’t you? Including the Department of Māori Affairs. And you’ve had a couple of stints overseas as well. One to the Delinquency Control Institute at the University of Southern California. What a handle to wear.
Yes, it was. I was in the youth aid section at that time. I spent half of my police career in the youth aid section. It was just starting to develop then and I became really interested in youth crime. But there were no real training programmes available in New Zealand at that time. So, I applied for a Churchill Fellowship to go to this institute. And I spent three months there along with 59 US police officers and one from Ireland.
There I learned a great deal about what not to do. I was appalled at some of the practices of the American police. That was in 1972, about four years after the Watts riot in Los Angeles. And, in the course of the visit, I arranged to go and stay with a black probation officer who was living in Watts and who had been through all that.
Through him, I met the Panthers and others from the Muslim movement. And I could see the level of institutional racism in the States. And I could also see the potential for the same things to happen in New Zealand.
Back here, there have been some unhealthy developments — especially in the degree of Māori imprisonment. And, for some time, more than half the prison muster in New Zealand has been Māori.
One of the problems is that nobody is funding the research or doing the work to turn those figures around. There used to be a lot of research done on institutional racism in New Zealand — on police attitude, ethnic profiling, and on how the system stigmatises and discriminates against Māori.
But nobody wants to go there any more. So, we’ve got this, what I call, a socially-constructed silence around those issues. And it’s getting worse, of course, with Māori being well over half of the prison population. And every time the government “gets tough” and extends the length of sentences, or makes it more difficult for people to get bail or parole, it impacts disproportionately on Māori.
So the gap between Māori and non-Māori in the criminal justice system is steadily growing. I think Corrections has taken a very narrow behavioural approach to offending, rather than looking at the wider community issues. Like the impact of colonisation. The intergenerational trauma on whānau. And the marginalisation of communities in which Māori are grossly over-represented. Those are the issues that we need to grapple with.
There’s some political mileage from having a hard-out view about prisons and prisoners. And there’s a widespread perception that they’re all bad guys who’ve got to be locked up. Our society seems to have a punitive attitude — stemming, I suppose from the Victorian era.
What appals me is that the people who talk about gangs as being inherently evil, have never spoken with gang members. They have no idea of the real situation. But they stick to the stereotype because it suits their political purpose.
When you know whānau who have been linked to gangs, sometimes for 30 years or more, you realise that, within those groups, there are a lot of people who have never been to prison. A lot who actually want a better life for themselves and their whānau but often don’t know how to go about that.
There are also people who are determined to bring about change — and who need to be supported by government agencies, and who are not being supported because of the arrogance of some bureaucracies that think they can do a better job themselves.
We don’t seem to be capable of developing a system that reflects what we perceive to be our basic values as a nation. Values of inclusion. Values of diversity. And addressing the issues that cause people to end up in prison.
We know how many of our guys get caught up in a life of crime. Probably struggling at school. Having literacy problems. Domestic issues. Drugs and alcohol. And some of them genuinely bad buggers, too. But there are others who’re just victims of circumstance — and there can be a bit of magic that helps turn their lives around. You’ve seen that, haven’t you?
The magic for me is when they see an opportunity to live a different life, and they’re empowered by their own whānau, by their community, to do something about that.
When you see some who have spent years in prison and then are taking their kids to kōhanga, taking them out shopping, or treating their wives with respect, or helping with the local school — and they start to see that they actually have a legitimate part to play in our society — then that’s wonderful.
But to do that, of course, they need a lot of resilience because there are so many people out there, politicians included, who spend their energy on putting them down at every turn.
Kim, sadly we see sometimes dismissive attitudes towards the cultural interventions in our prisons. You’ve seen how those programmes can build a prisoner’s confidence and Māori identity. And you’ve seen the challenges. What kind of development would you like to see in that space?
More than anything, I’d like to see Māori have a greater say in the way those interventions are designed and run. Over the last 20 years, there’s been a lot of tikanga Māori introduced into the prisons and corrections system. But usually they’ve been inserted into western frameworks and thinking, rather than allowing Māori to say: “No. We have a tikanga Māori philosophy, a kaupapa Māori way of doing things. We’d like to develop our values and principles within our own framework, rather than be colonised again by you.” That way, we’d get a great deal more success.
There have been constant efforts for prison reform, particularly from the Howard League for Penal Reform. But there’s been another element over the last few years with the emergence of a group of rangatahi called JustSpeak, who’re looking for alternatives to the punitive approach in New Zealand society. I understand you’ve been mentoring them.
Well, I have to say that JustSpeak has been one of the highlights of my life. We formed it five years ago. It was intended just to be a committee of young people presenting a youth view as part of Rethinking Crime and Punishment. But it developed into a social movement. They’ve been holding seminars, and writing submissions and marvellous reports on things like youth offending and Māori and the criminal justice system. And they continue to do that at a level I could never have contemplated. So these guys are making a huge impact, and they’re being treated by politicians and the public sector with a great deal of respect.
The lesson there, I think, is that us older people shouldn’t be so patronising to young people and, instead, we should appreciate the power of their thinking and influence.
Ka pai. Kia ora, Kim. Meanwhile, there’s the reality of so many of our people still in jail — and then coming out with no great prospects ahead of them. What do you think that we, as Māori families, should be doing for the guys that have done the crime and done the time?
There’s one particular concern that does weigh me down. It’s that we have an emerging Māori middle class. And it’s growing. We have more and more young people graduating from university, getting jobs in the public sector, moving on, and becoming confident both in the Māori world and the Pākehā world.
But a number of those make a decision, at some point, that they don’t want to be part of that marginalised group. Or that they don’t want to support them. I think we need to reflect on that. What is our duty, when we have whānau who are struggling? What is our duty to them and to the wider collective?
There’s a tendency, with some of our young people, to take a very individualised approach rather than taking on any wider responsibilities. We’ve seen some wonderful stuff happening when our people respond to the needs of others. Just look at what has been done at Te Puea marae for the homeless. The more we can do that sort of thing, the better.
It’s not easy territory, though, is it? And I’ve no doubt that the work that you and others have been doing comes at a personal emotional cost.
There’s always a cost in this. And I certainly went through a couple of periods of depression, clinical depression, over the last 40 years, when things hadn’t gone well.
In retrospect, though, perhaps they were times of character building. There’s always people prepared to abuse you, or sending you threatening email messages and so on. Giving you sidelong glances. But, at the end of the day, I think that if your personal integrity is intact, and if what you’re doing feels right, you’ll usually have enough courage to carry on with the battle.
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