The Arohata Girl

26th October 2011


By Wellington City Missioner,  Susan Blaikie

`Mary`,  the girl from Arohata Prison, became a prostitute at 13 and a year or two after began a life in prison.

Now she`s 26, and back in society – unskilled, uneducated and friendless.

The City Mission is trying to help – and suggests Society should too, for the good of all of us

Moving beyond labels

 Over the last week, I sat down and re-watched Shawshank Redemption (it continues to be one of my favourite movies).  I’ve got quite attached to Red, Andy, Tommy and Brooke despite their history of theft, violence and even murder.  Their crimes become almost superfluous to the humanity that pours through their struggles, hopes, despondency and fear.  I still tear up when Brooke commits suicide, or in Red’s final parole hearing when his political incorrectness ironically works for him and he’s set free after forty years.   There wouldn’t be many of us wanting a Red or Brooke living next door, but in those few hours, aided by a salient piano score and Morgan Freeman’s compelling narration, the humanity of the prisoner unites with our own.

Over the last month I’ve been supporting one recently paroled prisoner from Arohata, whom I’ll call Mary, along with the support of the Salvation Army, her parole officer, and a very dedicated counsellor.  Mary is just 26 years old and has spent a lot of her adult life in prison.  She began prostituting at the grand age of 13, and has been institutionalized for most of her life.

What now for Mary?  Mary has no family who support her, and the people she calls friends have unashamedly used her for drugs and money; the same path that led her to prison.  Mary is more vulnerable than ever right now.  She has rejoined society, but has little if any skills, education, networks or whanau to flourish in it.  Her parole conditions are focussed very tightly on public safety and sanctions, but little focus has been given to the repair of her wellbeing.

In journeying with Mary over this short time, I’ve come to realize how impoverished our strategy is for prisoner reintegration within New Zealand.  What is our overarching vision for prisoner transformation?  What intentional markers do we put in place so they can recover their humanity? How does Mary begin to build belonging?

Kim Workman, the Director of Rethinking Crime and Punishment, advocates for the vital role you and I play for ex-prisoners like Mary; while the state can facilitate reintegration, it is the community and ex-prisoners who do the reintegrating.   John Donne, a 17th century Anglican Priest, wrote ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’  Mary’s vulnerability is my vulnerability.  I share in Mary’s stigma and her isolation.  So do you.  Our lives and stories are captured and entwined in the metanarrative of the human family.  Thus it’s not so much a question of whether we should or should not support the Marys of our communities, but rather one of faithfulness to our collective identity.

If you want to explore about prisoner reintegration within New Zealand, I encourage you to read Kim Workman’s article;