Women behind barres: Ballet and the prison system

There is something very compelling about the Radio New Zealand story described in the video below and I congratulate NZ Ballet for taking the initiative to do outreach work with the women incarcerated in Arohata prison: it is an excellent project that recognises the humanity of people in prison (and God knows, the women could do with a distraction at this time of year). However, even more compelling are the facts the presenter drops into the narrative: that the female prisoner population in Aotearoa has quadrupled in the last five years, that three-quarters have mental health issues and many others have histories of domestic violence.

In fact prisoners are three times more likely than the general population to have a mental health problem, with the likelihood higher for women prisoners than men: 74% and 62% respectively (Department of Corrections, 2016). The news story neglects to mention that Māori (who make up 16% of the New Zealand population) comprise 51% of the overall prison population or that a massive 63% of the female prison population are Māori (Department of Corrections, 2017). That’s a surprising omission. Nor does it mention that the vast majority of offences of sentenced female prisoners relate to theft, fraud, drug offences and breaches of lower level sentences. The relationship between incarceration, structural inequality, colonisation, sexism and racism in Aotearoa prison policy is explored in detail in a recent text by McIntosh and Goldmann (2017). They also highlight the overincarceration of Māori women linking this to poverty, domestic violence and sexual victimisation (McIntosh & Goldmann, 2017).

The recent election manifesto of the New Zealand Labour Party (now part of the coalition government) recognised the problem of the growing prison population in NZ.

In the last nine years New Zealand’s prison population has reached a record 10,000 people, while the cost of running the prison system has ballooned 60% to almost $1billion each year. National’s response is to throw another $1billion at the system, locking up more and more people in institutions that are proven failures at addressing re-offending. There are better ways to spend $1 billion. Labour believes that prison should be a last resort. Prisons can increase reoffending and make us poorer and less safe in the long-term. Too often they have become dumping grounds for people who need treatment more than they need punishment. (New Zealand Labour Party, 2017)

Indeed, the new Corrections Minister has pledged to “Set a target of reducing the prison population by 30% over fifteen years, including a specific target to reduce Māori over-representation in the prison system” (New Zealand Labour Party, 2017). Of course this is welcome, but is it enough?

A more ambitious and progressive perspective on the way forward for prisons in Aotearoa has been articulated by People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA). Their manifesto Abolitionist Demands: Toward the End of Prisons in Aotearoa is highly recommended reading. They spell out short term, intermediate and long term goals for policing and criminalisation, courts and sentencing, and for prison conditions and incarceration. I suspect some of their longer term aspirations – such as the abolition of the police and their replacement with tikanga Māori processes – are likely to raise a few eyebrows, but there is much to learn from this document and it is important to establish a longer term horizon for deeper structural change.

For all those languishing in prison, justice will come. (People Against Prions Aotearoa, 2016)

What is self evident is that we need to address the damage done by many years of neglect at the hands of successive governments, and reverse the neoliberal programme of incarcerating the poor (Wacquant, 2009). Enriching the environment of prisoners through ballet, education classes or any other humane reform is to be encouraged and welcomed. However, if we are serious about prison reform then PAPAs manifesto will take us closer, as will tackling broader structural inequality, systemic racism and pervasive sexual violence. What’s the plan for that Minister?

Image credit: Iriss


Department of Corrections (2017). Factsheet – Statistics for Māori offenders. Retrieved from

Department of Corrections (2016). Comorbid substance use disorders and mental health disorders among New Zealand prisoners. Retrieved from

McIntosh, T. and Goldmann, B. (2017). Locked up: Incarceration in Aotearoa New Zealand. In A. Bell, V. Elizabeth, T. McIntosh & M. Wynyard (Eds.), A land of milk and honey: making sense of Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 251-263). Auckland: Auckland University Press.

New Zealand labour Party, 2017). New Zealand Labour party Manifesto: Justice. Retrieved from

People Against Prisons Aotearoa (2016). Abolitionist demands: Toward the end of prisons in Aotearoa. Auckland: PAPA.

Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the poor: The neoliberal government of social insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press.

3 replies on “Women behind barres: Ballet and the prison system”

Hi, Susan. Having spent a few hours reading the material in your link, and followed one or two of the links, it is clear that the NZ public need a BIG wake-up call.
Your comment about this post makes a very sick joke out of the public assertions by the former Minister of Social Development and her colleagues, who sought to bolster political power in order to shirk their social responsibility to the NZ public, using carefully crafted loaded narratives about “people on benefits” and their so called “fecklessness” regarding seeking and keeping employment as a first option to “rise out of poverty. It is a reality that both parents in a household now are expected to become breadwinners, yet the government and lawmakers are yet to provide the required levels of social an economic provision for this meme to become a reality for all.
It is clear that it made no difference to WINZ, or The Justice System that from the outset, Kathryn, took on the role of the main breadwinner for her family.
Throughout her ordeal Kathryn was an impeccable model of the consummate working woman who also went above and beyond to provide for herself and her family. She held down demanding jobs, and fits the descriptions of those successful people who struggle against the odds, and whose personal accounts feature in the career and educational promotional publications produced by our leading secondary and tertiary education providers.
Yet when in dire need and in circumstances where she had NO OTHER OPTIONS but to ask for a benefit- after working at demanding jobs, and paying taxes for many years, and supporting her family, and showing considerable initiative to becoming a home owner.
The so called NZ welfare “safety net” failed her and her family miserably to the point of outright betrayal.
When NZ’s social security system is described as “egalitarian” the stark reality behind the self serving “scrounger” narrative makes too few people’s blood boil.
The administrators of WINZ protocols, and The NZ justice system, dishonestly interprets her circumstances and manipulates the consequences of the domestic violence she experiences, to promote her as an example of a “benefit fraudster’, and a mentally ill abusive parent.
This account blows that narrative right out of the water. Her experience reflects upon the circumstances lived out by too many NZers.
This story and other like them need to be promoted as widely as possible as to rally support for a massive change in NZ’s public policy and culture, and give the regulators nowhere to hide when creating and reforming public policy.

Thanks for the comment and the link Susan. I understand that it is difficult to obtain stats on prisoners sentenced for so-called relationship fraud, but I guess they form part of the broader category “Fraud, deception and related offences” which is the second highest offence category for sentenced female prisoners in 2016/17. I agree that relationship fraud is a non-crime and does violence to the rights of women and their children. If the resources poured into policing a broken benefits system and incarcerating the poor could be combined with the wealth stolen through corporate tax evasion we would be well on our way to funding a universal basic income, now that might make a difference!

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