"There are some people out here that if they were taken and put into jail, it just might save their lives."
I’m Robbie. My mother is Ngāi Tahu, from here, so there’s a true blood line to chiefs. My parents met because they were both shearers and met at the pub. Her father was a staunch Ringatū, but he had to change to become a Mormon to marry my mum. I have seven sisters and six brothers, 75 nieces and nephews, 54 grand-nieces and grand-nephews, one great-grand-nephew. I have four children, three biological ones and my step-daughter. I had my first three grandchildren last year. So yeah, I’m very family orientated.
I’m very sporty. I’ve played Hockey for over 30 years. I played for Canterbury my first year, played for five years and then I became a jockey. I rode all over New Zealand by the time I was 16. You know that saying that a dog is a man’s best friend? I reckon it’s a horse. A horse is a man’s best friend.
I would re-visit my passion for hockey maybe 10 years later, on the West Coast. I made the team straight away, shows I still had it. I also played rugby, pool, darts, running City to Surf every year, and I won the South Island table tennis championship one year. I also did a bit of a stint in the Territorial army when I was on the West Coast. Flying a helicopter for a job, doing deer-hunting. Did a range of stuff all the way up to Nelson.
I had a lot of issues going on in my life. Probably mental health issues as well. I got involved with using alcohol and drugs.
I know that this country has the highest suicide rate in the world and highest youth suicide rate in the world. You don’t have to be behind bars to take your own life. To do such a thing, you must be pretty isolated, in an isolated world. I’m seeing a lot of suicides from people who I never would have expected. So, as someone who wants to be a big part of this community, no matter what you’re going through - stay connected. To your family, friends, community. You know, I used to be quite a rebel. I wasn’t a fan of the police over the years, but now I’ve found my support network. The system is a support network for me. And I go to church and I love my Christian family. It has a huge impact.
Prison was life-changing. Jail can be a blessing in disguise. There are some people out here that if they were taken and put into jail, it just might save their lives. From associations with alcohol, drugs, crime, domestic violence. It’s recognising s**t before it happens. The hardest thing to do is to see yourself. It takes someone else to let you know. In Māori, there’s a Whakataukī which says, ‘the kumara can’t tell you how sweet it is, it takes someone else to eat it’. Like I can see all the faults in you and you can see all the faults in me better than I can see them in myself.
In prison, you can better yourself, IF you apply yourself. There are a lot of resources available, but you have to get involved and be a part of them if you want to.
I couldn’t be a prison officer myself, but I notice that some of the ones that are prison officers, and they’re good friends of mine, even today, they want to make a difference in the world. And it’s not all about getting a paycheck at the end of the day. And that goes for all those in the police force also. They take up that line of work because they do want to make a difference. They’re not all bad. There are some, of course, but that comes with the territory.
My experience with jail – I made a lot of friends. I got five years. I did about three and a half of them. And that was my first time in jail. I was in the hardest part of the jail during the earthquake, I was in the East Wing. Most of the prison got shipped out to OCF in Otago and up north, but of all the inmates in the East Wing, I’m the only one that stayed. So I was tending to work in the kitchen. It was a lot of work. No power, no water, no sewerage, but yeah, my experience in prison. Seems such a long time ago now.
I was attending church, doing Taha Māori, a lot of educational programmes and sports. Upon my release, when you get freedom, you embrace it, because it’s something that most people just take for granted, even today.
I think our prison system is fair. If you compare it to other countries’ penal systems, we’re pretty light as far as our punishment for crimes, in this country. It’s not the way it used to be. Sure the meals and that have changed. Some things have changed, but they were pretty fair on inmates, back in the day, aye. With removing of your privileges, the old saying is abuse it and you lose it. So there’s always going to be inmates trying to work the system.
On release, I had an association with Pathway. They have what’s called Pathway retreat. The original owner still owns it, but he’s leased it to Pathway trust and to support the mission. He’s leased the property to Pathway Trust for 100 years, for $1 a year. Because they believe in what Pathway are doing. So I was staying out there, I was on home detention, I had an anklet on my ankle and I wasn’t allowed to journey very far, but I was very quick to become involved in all things in the community.
I said to the chairman at the time, let’s sell some logs. Because the place looked really, really run down, it was a mess. I was staying there with two other guys from jail. We got two trucks and two trailers for our logs and they got a lot of money in the space of two months. I was able to turn a huge profit and all that money went into resources to do up the retreat. I started off the landscaping, I’ve been out there and painted the whole place up, and been involved in renovating and adding on some of the new buildings, it’s pretty fantastic out there. Because of my work ethic, the chairman invited me for a paid job. And in the first two weeks I was in the top 10 employee group. And I’ve been with them on and off for the last nine years.
I got to do the Sycamore Tree restorative justice project. There were six hand-picked inmates, and 6 victims from the public. They weren’t our victims, but we all got to share our stories, over a period of five weeks. And to heal us, it took us to a certain… heart-set. And I got to share what I did, what my crime was. It’s also a release, you know, get it out and be free from what I was carrying.. It felt like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders, because I was able to talk about it. I had to talk about what I was doing prior to my offence, during my offence and out afterwards. What I was doing was using drugs and alcohol and was in sort of a bad place.
I’m involved in Te Wananga O Aotearoa this year, I really want to get involved in learning my Te reo Māori.
Couple of weeks ago, I became one year clean, off alcohol and drugs. I’m still walking in these social circles, ‘cause a lot of my friends are still out on the street, a lot of my friends are still using alcohol and drugs and they’ve seen me change, ‘cause I was with them, I was one of them, still drinking and drugging, but they’re still my family.
I see myself as quite lucky, because I have three families - my biological family, my church family and my street family. I’m here for my street family, whenever they want to take that walk of being clean and in sobriety and in recovery. I’ll be there to walk with them and to lean on. So I have a lot of love for them. It’s not easy seeing their struggles. And it’s needless, they don’t need to be struggling the way they do, but that’s the power of your addictions. They do whatever they need to do to meet their needs. But they’re happy. They’ve got a lot of help and support, you never starve in this city.
I’m in a social circle of friends who are also like-minded and roughly about the same length of time in sobriety. One of my two supports, he’s 16 months clean and his partner’s at 10 months. We like to call it our Winner’s Circle. It’s about who we allow into our spaces and what impact they have on our lives. I love my friends on the street, but I don’t associate and don’t indulge or partake in what they are doing in their socialising lives.
The City Mission is pretty amazing. When I think back over a year and a half ago, I was very, very sick from my alcohol and drug use. And I was out living in the street. And the word was for me to get my butt into the City Mission and to engage with the counsellors at the office. I was allowed to stay here, under the condition that I didn’t use alcohol and drugs. But that was a step I had to take when I was ready. And when I hit my rockbottom, I went, yup, I’m ready.
So I came here, started engaging in activities here. I mean, I was killing myself. And they were sayin’ you’re going to die if you keep doing what you’re doing. And they’re right. You know, I was drinking and drugging, didn’t give a s**t about anything. Didn’t want to take responsibility for anything. The City Mission sees potential in me. I’ve got my name down to do volunteer work here, but it’s a two year stand-down from being a resident. But I may get fast-tracked, I help out anyway. I got involved in Greening the rubble and in a project fixing up bikes for the community. I’ve given away about 40 bikes in the last three months.
I never had a problem finding employment out of prison. I think if you’re open and honest, it goes a long way.