Pasifika programme helps ex-prisoners reconnect

For many people who have been in prison, inadequate support networks make successfully re-entering society extremely difficult. Old habits, stigmatisation and a lack of positive, supportive social connections mean many ex-prisoners reoffend. Luckily, PARS (People At Risk Solutions, formerly known as the Prisoner Aid and Rehabilitation Society) supports prisoners before and after release, helping them to become contributing members of their communities, and avoid reoffending.

Connection, community and culture

 An important factor to building a healthy life outside of prison is connection with one's cultural values and a sense of place. Coordinated by Amen International Networx, Aucklanders from a diverse range of Pasifika backgrounds act as mentors in Toe Feso'ota'I, PARS' Pasifika mentoring programme. Meaning "to reconnect" in Samoan, Toe Feso'ota'I gives released prisoners a chance to talk, socialise, plan for their futures and set goals in a culturally-specific setting.

"Toe Feso'ota'I gives these men a chance to speak and share personal things about their lives - it's a safe place for them," says Lepua Amelia Nuualiitia, CEO of Amen International Networx. "We value and respect everyone here, and are a family."

Mark's story

A member of the inaugural Toe Feso'ota'I programme, Mark* joined PARS in 2012 after his release. He spent time living in PARS' supported accommodation, but when the time came for him to move to his own house, he knew he needed further support to help keep him on-track with improving his life.

Originally from Niue, Mark's parents immigrated to New Zealand, leaving him behind at the age of five. A childhood spent being shifted around various family members and fragmented by domestic violence left Mark feeling disconnected and angry. "I had no balance, no stability, and not much sense of family," he says. "I didn't even know I had a mum until I was ten." At age 15, Mark moved to New Zealand to live with his parents, but found adjusting to family life in New Zealand incredibly difficult. "I didn't feel like I belonged," he says. "I couldn't call my parents Mum and Dad, I had difficulty communicating, because of language barriers and a lack of confidence, and I had no interest in going to school."

Mark describes his life as "going from one extreme to another." He lost touch with his three children, finding it hard to communicate and connect with his partner. "I didn't have the confidence to seek any help, even though I knew I needed it," he says. "So I ended up in prison. When my mum died, and I couldn't leave to attend her funeral, I knew I needed to change."

Culture offers a vehicle to self-improvement

Knowing his lack of education could be a barrier to bettering his life, Mark took part in workshops and therapy sessions while in prison, which helped him build skills that he didn't learn at school and address his anger issues. The knowledge and self-restraint he learnt during therapy proved very useful after his release. "One thing that I loved about Toe Feso'ota'I was that I got the chance to help someone else," says Mark. "Therapy inside meant I could pass on some of what I know to the other guys, I'd made an effort to sort my life out and the programme helped me to help them sort theirs out too."

Through the programme, released prisoners meet with Pasifka community members for two hours each week. They discuss responsible and non-violent ways to deal with aggravating situations, improve their communication skills, set goals and eat together, a great way to connect. "It's about improving our lives in ways that reflect Pasifika culture and beliefs," says Mark. "I'm the only one from Niue, but there's a Niuean woman, who cooks us dinner."

Mark says that through Toe Feso'ota'I, his most significant change has been his improved communication skills. "It was really hard for me to communicate before, but Toe Feso'ota'I has given me confidence and helped me to network," he says. "I can talk to anyone now. I talk to people on the bus and on the street. I like to hear their stories and connect with them."

Toe Feso'ota'I has also helped Mark establish goals to further his life. He's looking for work, with a view to providing financial security for his children, and hopes to reconnect with their mother. He's interested in hospitality, but is currently working with a family member, helping to renovate a home. "I think building is a good way to learn some more useful skills," he says. "You never know what opportunities might arise from it."

The programme has also encouraged him to reconnect with the Christian community, and he enjoys attending church weekly with his father, with whom his relationship has improved significantly. "It's helped me stay true to myself, and given me the strength to do what's right," he says. "It's difficult, you know, connecting with your community and your roots after prison. I'm really grateful for what's been made available to me. Toe Feso'ota'I has a real family feel, and I'm encouraging other Pasifika guys I know to get involved."

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons