Maori prisons not Labour policy - Andrew Little

Labour hasn't fully embraced the idea of one of its own MPs to create a separate Māori prison, saying it isn't official party policy.

The party's corrections spokesman Kelvin Davis floated the idea of turning the existing Ngawha prison in Northland to one run solely on Māori values.

However, he said it wouldn't be exclusively for Māori inmates, who make up just over 50 percent of the prison population.

Labour leader Andrew Little applauded Mr Davis' ideas about changing the way the corrections system works, but stopped short of adopting it as policy.

While it was an idea which was brought to him by Mr Davis, it wasn't put before the party's policy council or the caucus.

"We're at the tail end of the policy formation and it's not there," Mr Little said. "I think the commitment we'll almost certainly make is that we have to look differently at what we're doing and find new ways of managing corrections, but I can't say this will be part of a policy we'll go to the election with."

He says there are a number of ways for an idea to germinate into a fully-fledged policy.

"But you've got to start with idea. Sometimes there needs to be a public debate about it for the party to form a policy for it."

Mr Little says the current corrections situation, in which Māori account for 5077 of 10,052 prisoners – shows how "totally and utterly disproportionately represented" Māori are.

Māori prisons would go against previous Labour policy from seven years ago, which was against the idea.

The suggestion is being heavily criticised by New Zealand First leader and Northland MP Winston Peters who says it goes against why Ngawha prison was built in the first place.

He says the rationale was that family and friends of inmates wouldn't have to travel far to visit their loved ones.

"If Ngawha, built in 2005 by Labour, is to be Māori only, the justification for building Ngawha is being overlooked, and non-Māori and their families will have to travel to Auckland," he says.

Mr Peters also believes race-based policies don't work.

"What's next? All-Māori criminal courts? An all-Māori police force?"

There's a mixed message from National on the idea too, with backbencher Nuk Korako in favour of the proposal.

"I think a Māori approach to anything is important, not only just prisons so if [Mr Davis] can get some traction on that, that'd be great."

Mr Korako said he'd already raised the idea with Corrections Minister Louise Upston.

But it's been scuppered by Prime Minister Bill English who says prisoners already get the appropriate rehabilitation based on their needs.

"It's incorporated into our prisons where appropriate, we just don't see the point of trying to designate a prison as a Māori prison and other prisons as non-Māori because there's going to be Māori in all our prisons because there are too many of them."

However, he said there was a "genuine effort" to find answers to bringing down the number of Māori in prison.

"But you don't want to create the impression there's some kind of separate system."

In terms of lowering offending and re-offending rates, Mr English believes most of the important work needs to be done with youth outside of prison.