The Corrections department is exploring biometric and finger-printing technology to allow families to come and go from new low-security reintegration centres that are to be built in the Bay of Plenty and Taranaki.
The centres are desgined to ease prisoners back into society.
The Taranaki facility will replace New Plymouth prison, which will close in March. Corrections is also scouting spots in the Bay of Plenty, which does not have a prison.
Corrections Minister Anne Tolley, associate minister Pita Sharples and Corrections chief executive Ray Smith recently visited Queensland and South Australia to look at reintegration models.
Tolley says the centres will focus on reuniting prisoners with their families and getting them back to employment. The low-security facilities will hold between six and eight inmates at a time.
"It is a bit scary for communities, but actually these people are going to come back and live amongst them anyway," Tolley said.
"And if we can reintegrate them well then they are not going to go on and reoffend, which is better for the community.
"As they are getting ready to come out, we want to progress them so that we are not just opening the gates and sending them off.
"For some, particularly young people, are we institutionalising them to deinstitutionalise them before we send them out again?
"We are looking at how can we manage that a lot better so that you keep the security and the punishment - because they have committed crimes - but you are not turning them into caged animals that you then have to spend a lot of time and effort to make human again."
Tolley said Corrections would partner with iwi and community agencies, such as Prisoners Aid Rehabilitation Services (Pars).
The department is now exploring the biometric technology it saw demonstrated in Australia. By using fingerprints, instead of paper documents or ID cards, families can more easily visit the prisons.
"What stood out was the real efforts that they were making to maintain links with families. They were reshaping all the ways they worked with visitors to make that experience of visiting dad in prison as easy as possible for the family groups."
Maintaining relationships with families is important for release, Tolley said. In Australian facilities relatives were able to visit every evening to share meals and for extended periods at weekends.
"You take an offender out of a family for six or seven years, children grow up, the dynamics change dramatically, so that ongoing contact is important."
New Zealand Howard League for Penal reform chief executive Mike Williams said the centres are a "brilliant idea.
"The pilots are in areas where they don't have jails - there will be offenders from those areas. Effectively, it enables Corrections to assist with the integration into their home base.
"It is a good step towards reducing reoffending by 25 per cent within five years. We are very supportive."
- © Fairfax NZ News