Until eight years ago, Leonie Aben, acting Prison Director of Hawkes Bay Regional Prison, saw arts programmes in prisons as more of an optional extra, a good way of keeping prisoners occupied rather than an integral part of building self-esteem, motivation and a sense of cultural identity.
“I always liked the arts but I didn’t see it as I do now, as part of the rehabilitation process,” says Leonie, who has worked for Ara Poutama Department of Corrections for 27 years – mostly at Hawkes Bay Regional Prison. “I thought that it was a nice thing to do but more of a hobby than anything else.”
That all changed when she started working as the residential manager of the prison’s Te Tirohanga Kaupapa (Māori Focus Unit) and saw what a big impact the unit’s cultural arts programme had on the men there.
“I could see the difference that arts in the unit was making in a positive way. It created a real sense of belonging and connectedness and inclusion – and not just for Māori but for men from other cultures too.”
Enthusiastic advocate of the arts in all its forms
Now she is an enthusiastic advocate of the arts in all its forms – from whakairo and kapa haka to writing poetry, painting, producing and performing in plays, and even knitting.
“Arts activities have a calming, therapeutic effect,” Leonie says. “If the men are singing waiata, or playing music or weaving or drawing, it changes the atmosphere in the prison and makes it a safer place for everyone.
“Being involved in the arts also unlocks potential and it helps build self-esteem and creates a real sense of achievement. ”
She says many of the men in the prison – of whom more than half are Māori – have never had the opportunity to explore the arts before. When they do, the results can often be extraordinary.
“Some people don’t realise how good they are but when you put a pen in their hands, or they start carving, they produce absolutely stunning work.”
Not surprisingly, given the make-up of New Zealand’s prison population, there is a strong focus on Māori artforms in the prison. This is in line with Ara Poutama’s Department of Corrections’ Hōkai Rangi Strategy, which aims to bring Māori values into the prisons.
The strategy has six strategic areas for change and Leonie says the arts have an important role to play in achieving all six of them.
According to Tony Denton, acting Assistant Prison Director, Leonie plays a central role in embracing the principles of Hōkai Rangi at the prison, and she is constantly challenging him and other staff to find innovative ways of enabling art activities onsite.
“She is hugely supportive and she definitely sees opportunities within Hōkai Rangi for us to do better,” he says.
A new cultural focus
Among the recent changes introduced at the prison is a new cultural focus within its offender employment programme. Now, rather than building sawhorses or picnic tables, participants create kowhaiwhai – the red, white and black panels used to decorate wharenui (meeting houses).
Making the panels is a chance for participants to connect with the history behind the panels while creating individualised and personally meaningful works of art that they can use to decorate their units or send out to whānau.
Art produced by men at the prison also goes out into the community. Carvings, for example, are on display in places such as hospitals, schools, kohanga reo and the Hastings District Council.
The prison is also the only one in the country with a “music box” – a shipping container that has been repurposed as a music studio, containing musical instruments and IT equipment used by rangatahi in the prison’s youth unit.
Tony says that until recently, activities in the music box were largely staff-led. However, that’s about to change. “We are moving to having a professional come in to develop a more structured programme with greater learning opportunities.”
For Leonie, who whakapapas to a number of North Island iwi including Ngāi Takoto and Ngāti Kahungungu, the past six years of helping to develop a kaupapa Māori pathway at the prison, including through the arts, has been personally very rewarding.
“I’ve definitely been on my own journey,” she says. “I also realise now that the arts aren’t just a hobby. They’re a way of connecting to your identity and your culture: they go hand in hand.”