The right to vote from behind bars

By Tema Hemi

An urgent inquiry into the rights of prisoners to vote is underway in Wellington. 

Former prisoner and now advocate Awatea Mita recalls being in jail during the 2014 election.  At the time she couldn't understand why voting privileges were taken away from New Zealand prisoners. 

Mita has since regained her freedom and her voting rights after hitting rock bottom almost ten years ago following a series of misfortunes.

Mita says, "I thought it was bad enough when dad died, and then mum died, losing my job and then my relationship ending I thought was the last straw.  And then, being in prison I thought that was the last straw and it cant get any worse than this."

In 2010, Mita lost her 13-year-old son to a swimming accident.  She had been convicted for possession and selling Marijuana.   

"It's a day that I will never forget that I got the news that my son had passed.  The NZ police had contacted the prison to let them know that my son at that point was declared missing but I knew that he had passed.  I knew within myself that he was gone," says Mita. 

The one-time drug dealer has managed to turn her life around.  She now spends every day on the outside fighting for prisoner rights in memory of her late son. 

"Now I'm also an advocate for incarcerated people and former incarcerated people because I feel a responsibility when I'm able to articulate that experience.  I feel the majority of these people don't have a voice."

In 2010 the National government banned all prisoners from voting.  Mita believes that broader action needs to be taken to restore the rights of citizenship within the criminal justice system.

Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis says, "I supported this when the petition was going around and I still do.  We will have to wait until the issue has been passed through the Tribunal."

Findings to the urgent inquiry into the rights of prisoners to vote is expected once the hearing finishes on Thursday.