We've all heard the stories, how in parts of Europe, prisons are closing down.

In Sweden and the Netherlands, cell doors are opening, letting prisoners out, not locking more up.

In a country where building jails is a growth industry, the response might be a stereotypical Kiwi one: Yeah, right. As if that could happen here?

But why not?

Auckland University sociologist Tracey McIntosh thinks our society is just too hung-up on the idea of locking people up.

our society is just too hung-up on the idea of locking people up

“Prisons limit...our ability to think about what we are trying to achieve - safer, participating, contributing communities with fewer victims and reduction on social harm,” she says.

“Prisons are an obstacle to imagining the possible, alternatives are seen as soft. Prison is the baseline notion of punishment.”

They distract our attention away from things such as putting more effort into keeping people away from crime in the first place, from greater engagement with families at risk, with even simple things like driver education courses so young people can avoid getting in trouble, she says.

McIntosh visits Auckland Women’s prison regularly, running a creative writing programme. She says that she encounters people for whom prison has become “a part of [their] narrative”.

For many of the inmates, prison has become “normalised”. “They might not know how prison works, but it can be part of your narrative and in some case, very likely to be part of your biography. You might not want to go there and resist it, but there’s something about the place...it plays in your life...like a huge, big rock always there and present and you know you can’t avoid it. There’s something about the intergenerational reach of prison.”

How can that be? For those people? For those families? For our country?

Surely there’s a better way?

The quest for answers to a better way than New Zealand’s current burgeoning prison system takes us to an unexpected place.

Gareth Sands has spent a career working in prisons here and in the UK, starting out as a volunteer at a remand prison before joining as a corrections officer and working his way into management.

Most recently, he ran Mt Eden - yes, as the director of the Serco-run prison embroiled in the fight club scandal. You’d think that would have been enough to make him look for another career, or at the very least keep his head down. But he believes he has things he wants to offer from his own experience.

“I’ve got a good flavour because I’ve immersed myself in this jurisdiction into the work of Mt Eden Corrections Facility which ran very successfully for a very long period, and a tipping point was reached, and things deteriorated for a whole list of reasons - some failings on the prison’s part and some failings on the system’s part,” he says.

“But I do believe that improvements are possible and the reductions in the population can be achieved.”

How big a reduction does Sands envisage? “I would go so far as to say we could work with 2500 to 3000 prisoners in 20 years time.”

On the current muster, that’s a 75 per cent drop.

Which is not to say he doesn’t believe there is a place for prisons at all. “When you have a criminal justice system and you want law and order, prison is necessary for some individuals.”

For most people, however, “research says [prison] doesn’t work as a deterrent, it doesn’t work as a punishment”.

“There’s a school of thought that would say that incarcerating human beings makes them worse not better. So the influences of custody can have a negative and detrimental impact.”

As a first step, he would introduce separation zones in prisons, so those who are experiencing their first time inside don’t mix with those for whom “it’s an occupational hazard to be in and out of prison”.

First-timers would then be protected from undue influence, and supported with wrap-around services and support.

“We’re not doing enough with individuals who come into custody. It’s about exploring alternatives to custody and it’s also about when you have the people in custody, working really closely with them, not just saying we’re going to reduce reoffending, not just saying we’re going to address public safety and tackle reoffending rates, but actually working with individuals as individuals.”

Sands has written a 5000-word vision for the future.

He believes inmates should be kept in prisons as close as possible to their homes, to keep up contact with family. He wants better and more drug and alcohol treatment (which, when you consider 46 per cent of those who enter prison have a dependency problem, is crucial), increased reducing reoffending programmes, help with debt management, and assistance with housing upon leaving prison.

But even before those steps that can happen inside a prison, he supports calls for sending fewer people there in the first place.

“I would argue that there needs to be alternatives to incarceration which are constructive for the country.”

On a black sand Horowhenua beach Kim Workman leans into the wind and utters a karakia.

“I sense their presence and my karakia is about seeking strength and guidance for the journey ahead,” says Workman.

After a career in the justice sector, working at the frontline and advocating for change, it’s humbling to witness this seasoned warhorse gathering himself for yet more battles.

You sense he doesn’t want to miss out: “I think we’re at an interesting point in our history. Most people I think understand that prisons don’t work and that there are more effective ways of dealing with people.”

Worse than not dealing with people, Workman is convinced prison is a cause of crime.

“If you send somebody to prison they’re more likely to reoffend when they leave prison and the longer you keep them there the more likely they are to reoffend. So the best thing you can do is to first of all try to keep them out of prison, and secondly, if they do go to prison, don’t put them in there for a long time, have a proportionate sentence.”

And yet, analysis by Stuff data journalist Andy Fyers shows prison sentences are getting longer. He looked at Corrections data on the number jail terms handed down annually between 1999 and 2014.

Here’s the trend in sentences handed down annually during that period.

After a spike between 2002 and 2009, the total number of sentences in 2014 was only about 7 per cent higher than in 1999.

However, sentences of of 2 or more years have been increasing pretty steadily.

Three crime categories account for 55 per cent of all sentences over two years in length in 2014: drug offences, acts intended to cause injury and sexual assault.

The numbers of longer sentences handed down annually for these crimes increased by between 30 (sexual assault) and 176 per cent (illicit drug offences) between 1999 and 2014.

There are fewer total sentences being handed down for illicit drug crimes, but the trend is towards longer sentences.

Sentences are also longer for sexual assault and related offences.

While for acts intended to cause injury it’s a case of more prison sentences overall, rather than a shift in sentencing patterns.

But it's not just the length of time prisoners are sent away for that Workman has an issue with.

“One of the problems we have is it that rehabilitation agenda in New Zealand for the last 20 years has been focused on individual behavioural modification, a psychological approach,” he says. “But there’s been no effort or investment in developing community-type approaches to the reduction of reoffending where you engage communities and families in reducing reoffending.”

He would like to see more effort put into helping communities be part of the solution so that when inmates are freed, they come home to an environment that supports them and fosters change. Even some gangs should not be discounted, he says.

“There are some people within gangs who are pro-social who want gang members to stop using drugs and offending and who have led by example, and as a result of that reduced the level of offending within their own communities.” And yet Workman cannot see that being adopted: “It’s almost as though ministers have instructed their Government agencies not to get involved with gangs even when they're doing good stuff.”

Instead, he believes Governments have had an appetite to punish.

In the Beehive office of Corrections Minister Judith Collins there are two pictures of Dame Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister renowned for ruling with an iron fist.

And on the wall over her desk is a famous photo of the minister known as “Crusher Collins” aiming a gun.

Nothing about her exudes anything that says “soft on crime”.

But neither, perhaps surprisingly, is she about to claim victory for sending more people to prison. She doesn’t hide where she thinks any blame should lie.

“The reason for the increase in the muster is because people have committed very serious crimes,” she says.

“Of course we’d rather there weren’t any people in prison but we do have longer sentences, we do have fewer people getting bail.

“I’m very happy to stand by that because what we do now, we have people who are violent offenders and methamphetamine cooks in jail on remand rather than out in the community wreaking more havoc.”

Collins is not about to buy any suggestion that prison isn’t the place for offenders. In fact, she says, prison is the best place for them.

“Actually I would rather they are there while we can get them rehabilitation treatment should they wish to receive that, and that is a better place than being out in a community continuing with their behaviour.”

On the afternoon we see Collins she’s in a combative mood. Challenged over whether imprisoning people ultimately makes society safer, she pulls the NIMBY card. “Well if you’d like me to let go a whole lot of serious violent offenders to come and live in your street I think you’d find you didn’t agree with that.”

It’s instructive of what drives policy around crime and justice: fear.

More than once in the interview, Collins pulls out a statistic that “70 per cent of prisoners are in jail for serious violent and serious sexual offending and serious drug offending”.

It’s true that more people are being sent to prison for violence, and drug offenders are going to jail for longer.

In 2012, drug sentences of longer than two years overtook those of less than two years for the first time.

But when you drill down into those figures more, you have to ask, do all of these people need to be in prison? For instance, almost five percent of drug sentences last year were for possession. One of those was Far North mother Kelly Van Gaalen, sentenced to two years prison after 684 grams of cannabis were found in her home.

Collins, though, is unrepentant. “The fact is people don’t come into Corrections because of Corrections, they come in because of their behaviour.”

Extended Interview This is an extended interview with Corrections Minister Judith Collins, in a combative mood, defending the policies that have led to our highest ever muster.

Criminologist Liam Martin, of Victoria University, isn’t having a bar of Collins’ argument.

“If you listen to Judith Collins we have more people in prison because we have more people committing crime. That is simply not true. Crime rates have been declining since the mid-1990s, and the prison population has been skyrocketing because we have made specific decisions that create that.” He lists longer sentences, restricting parole and changing bail laws as examples of those political decisions.

Martin also points towards social and economic changes since the 1980s as a reason for the prison muster explosion, and cites a tangible example.

“I often think of the old General Motors factory in Trentham which was walking distance from Rimutaka prison,” he says. The factory opened in 1967, the same year Rimutaka opened its gates under that name.

“Since then the GM factory closed, the whole automobile industry in New Zealand was basically dismantled, and Rimutaka prison has grown into this whole institution with this whole economy all around it. Those two things are completely connected. Some of those people who would have been working in that factory are now locked up at Rimutaka.”

In Boston, Liam Martin lived at a halfway house among 10-12 men who had just gotten out of prison and were starting over. These are some of those men.

Martin returned to New Zealand this year after spending five years studying mass incarceration in the country most known for locking up its citizens - the United States.

And he is worried we are following the US example.

“There’s lot of things I like about America - my wife’s American, I watch American football, I grew up watching NBA, I wear American sneakers. If there’s one thing you don’t want to copy it’s American prison policy.

“America gives us a real world warning of what not to do when it comes to prison policy. And not only are we not treating it as the warning we should but we are actively mimicking it.”

But even in the worst country in the world for incarceration policy, he found some examples worth considering.

For part of his studies, Martin lived in a halfway house in the suburbs of Boston, where up to 12 recently-released prisoners had a chance to adapt back into life on the outside.

It was residential house, with privacy and dignity for each of the men, food on the table, stability and rules.

“And one of the things I learned was that when you provide that kind of environment...even people with a history of violence can live among other people in very stable collegial ways.

I spent nine months in that house, never saw a fist fight let alone a weapon. There was no violence there because the right support was in place to support people to live in good ways.

“People can overcome these obstacles.”

In the past six episodes of this series, we’ve looked inside our prison system and found plenty of good people trying to do their best, but also plenty of problems - not least of which is an ever-growing muster.

We revealed that there is widespread violence, and that the Chief Ombudsman has grave concerns about some parts of our prisons - especially what he believes is the inhumane treatment of some prisoners.

We met the former director of Serco-operated Mt Eden who told us that he had tried to blow the whistle about a tipping point in his prison - right before the fight club scandal erupted.

The head of Corrections, Ray Smith, admitted that the handling of some aspects around the fight club scandal were wrong.

But he praised the 8000 staff of the department who go to work every day trying to make a difference - and who could disagree with that?

Yet it’s those staff, as much as the prisoners themselves, who deserve a better way.

Nobody wants an ever-growing number of institutions where violence and threats are rife and where many people go in criminals, and come out resentful and hardened.

Surely there's a better way?