Sir Graham Lowe dedicated to helping Māori prisoners stay out of jail

By Mana Wikaire-Lewis

Iconic rugby league coach Sir Graham Lowe is keeping busy fighting to keep Māori offenders from going back to jail - and he's seeing results that he says bring him close to tears.

Māori incarceration rates in New Zealand sit well above the 50% mark, according to the Department of Corrections.

The reasons Māori are disproportionately imprisoned in this country are hotly contended. Some say Māori are causing the problems, so "'lock them away", while others say Māori have endured intergenerational racism, colonisation and subjugation and, until these issues are addressed, there's likely to be a continued distrust of government and the system.

Hōkai Rangi, along with other educational focused programmes, is working to redress some of these inequities for Māori as a way of reducing recidivism.

One special programme, Kick For The Seagulls, was developed by one of Aotearoa's most revered sporting coaches, based on 12 principles he used throughout his coaching career.


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Language of sport

Lowe accomplished what many thought was almost impossible, including coaching the Kiwis to their first win over the indomitable Kangaroos in more than a decade, beating the Australian league champions as coach of England rugby league club Wigan, and being the only non-Australian to win State of Origin as coach of Queensland in 1991.

Kick For The Seagulls is a 17-week prison programme, designed to speak the language many Māori understand - the language of sport.

“I see these men at the completion of these courses when they graduate… I have a pride in my heart that I can’t describe,” Lowe says.

“I’ve had the privilege of sitting on the sideline at Wembley with 100,000 people singing to me after a challenge cup game. The feeling of pride grips you so much, that you’ve got to be careful or you just break down and start crying. It’s just a fantastic feeling of pride. I don’t feel any less than that every time we have a graduation.”

According to the Department of Corrections, close to 60% of Māori prisoners have not attained NCEA Level 1 in literacy and numeracy competency. Serco, the Department of Corrections service provider, was keen to consider more education programmes that might help to reduce recidivism rates for offenders.

'He's genuine and it shows'

Over a four-year period, Māori reoffending has been consistently higher (above 50%) than both Pākehā at 32% and 11% for Pasifika. Lowe thought that offering a sporting lens for people who tend to gravitate towards sport would be beneficial in generating more positive outcomes.

“To get the team to perform to its potential, you need to love the players. Forget about what the academics of sport will tell you – getting people to do something is an art, not a science. The first part of that art is to look the person in the eye, shake his hand, and make it clear you’re there to help.”

So why is Kick For The Seagulls working?

“[It’s] Lowe’s dedication. He’s at the beginning, the middle when he can, and the end of every programme when we start,” SERCO Education Manager Velani Bernard says.

“He loves doing what he is doing and the satisfaction is helping people. He’s genuine about that, and it shows."  

Lowe says, “People say you’re not indispensable and I agree with that. But systems that work, you’ve got to keep them alive. This is a system that’s working."

Lowe was knighted in 2019 for services to the community. He continues to use all his experience to help create positive change in people's lives.