National | Corrections

Racism complaints sees Corrections pull ad campaign

The advertisement was part of a campaign to fill Waikato vacancies, but a communications expert said “they’re offending their target audience”. Photo / Supplied

A recruitment ad for prison officers is being pulled off buses after it was labelled racist and offensive.

The ad, which was on buses in Waikato and Bay of Plenty, asked candidates to “become the change for our Waikato whānau”.

It features a Māori woman in prison officer uniform with the words, “Join today, change tomorrow”.

Corrections said the ad was “urgently being removed” after a complaint, and the organisation has apologised to Waikato-Tainui.

Hamilton resident, Jason Ake, a communications professional, said the campaign “jumped out to me as racist and offensive”.

“Its underlying message is Māori are criminals, perpetuating a stereotype.”

Ake is general manager, communications at Waikato-Tainui iwi, but was opining in his personal capacity.

“Did no one stop and say, this not only is racially discriminatory to Māori, it also backfires. If they want more Māori officers, they’re offending their target audience.”

While Ake did not dispute that Māori were over-represented in prisons, he said there were socio-political reasons for this, and solutions were not simply to recruit Māori prison officers.

Corrections deputy chief executive Māori Topia Rameka said he received a complaint about the ad on May 26.

Once he became aware of it, he “asked for the online versions to be immediately pulled and for the bus backs to be removed”.

The advert had been running from May 8 in South Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty on buses, billboards and social media.

It was part of a campaign to recruit frontline staff to fill the 59 vacncies at Waikato facilities Spring Hill Corrections Facility and the new 500-bed facility at Waikeria Prison.

Rameka said he had apologised directly to senior executives of Waikato-Tainui.

“While ignorance is no excuse, I am confident that harm was not intended.”

Actors in the adverts were cast by Corrections’ ad agency Stanley St (formerly Ogilvy New Zealand).

Bridgette Tapsell, owner of Mt Maunganui-based public relations agency Whare, which embeds te ao Māori into services, said the advert needed fixing.

It implies Māori were “all in that criminal category”, she said.

“This is obviously an unintended consequence... but it does need to be changed.”

Johnson McKay, culture and strategy lead and founder at Auckland brand and creative consultancy Ira, said it was “a one-liner with no context”.

Using the word whānau or showing Māori in advertising was not inherently racist “but it leaves room for every flavour of bias to react to the campaign in negative ways without context that informs why Corrections are recruiting Māori”.

It was important to bring more Māori into Corrections, “as they have the desire, values and cultural skills to support Māori inmates to heal and rehabilitate”.

A $4m recruitment campaign was launched by Corrections last October to resolve staffing shortages in prisons, with the department losing staff faster than it could hire replacements.

As at April 31 there were 450 front line custodial vacancies across 17 prisons.

Rameka said Corrections had received more than 4400 applications since October 2022, and had recruited more than 400 people into frontline roles.

Various advertisements have been used in the recruitment campaign featuring actors playing staff who are Māori, Pakeha, Pasifika, and Indian, said Corrections’ Rameka.

Shortages of prison officers have meant prisoners have had less access to rehabilitation, education and face-to-face visits.

Prison population by ethnicity - latest quarterly statistics at March 2023. Photo / Supplied / Corrections

One Corrections recruitment advert which featured a Māori boy whose imprisoned father was ‘saved’ by a white Corrections officer was ordered off-air by the Advertising Standards authority in March, after complaints about racial stereotyping.

The authority said that advert portrayed “an obvious and awkward power imbalance”, with “negative stereotyping of Māori and Pacifica people as criminals and… the idea of a ‘white saviour’.”

The ASA agreed with a complaint that one of the advertisements presented “a very stereotypical representation of Pākehā Corrections’ officer and Māori prisoner, which was likely to cause offence and harm”.

The prison population - latest quarterly statistics at March, 2023. Photo / Supplied / Corrections

Spring Hill and Waikeria male prisons in the Waikato make up 13.3% of Aotearoa’s prison population, according to latest quarterly statistics.

The proportion of Māori in prison is 52.8%, the data showed.

This proportion has increased from 51.9% in 2019, which was when the Government unveiled its $98m Hōkai Rangi prison strategy to address the disproportionate number of Māori in the justice system.

The strategy aimed to lower the proportion of Māori in prison over 15 years, to a level that matched the Māori population of 16%.