Humane initiatives in privately-run British prisons such as allowing inmates to spend entire days with their children have caught the eye of Corrections Minister Anne Tolley.
Mrs Tolley visited the Serco-managed Doncaster Prison in England last week to investigate programmes that could be implemented in New Zealand prisons.
British-based company Serco will manage nearly a quarter of New Zealand's prison population by 2015 when it takes over a new 960-bed facility in Wiri. It began a six-year contract at Mt Eden Correctional Facility last year.
Mrs Tolley was most interested in the Doncaster facility's "Families First" scheme, which encouraged ongoing relationships between prisoners and their children.
"While we were there, there was a father who was bathing his 18-month-old daughter. She comes in once a week, and the two of them go through a normal parenting day. He has a day with his little one and he has done since she was born," Mrs Tolley said.
"It's to try and maintain those links, so they don't miss the development of that child, so the child gets the benefit of a dad."
This scheme was limited to 11 well-behaved fathers in the minimum-security jail.
To encourage new ideas the minister proposed exchanges in staff between Doncaster and Mt Eden. Many of the initiatives in Serco prisons were based on recommendations from frontline staff members.
Mrs Tolley said privately-run jails had the advantage of being able to trial new programmes without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. She also noted the absence of hostility between staff and inmates at Doncaster Prison.
"I said to [staff], 'So what's your record of violence?' And they looked at me as if I was nuts."
Serco has introduced some of its initiatives at Mt Eden. It increased the number of visiting hours for inmates and attempted to make the visiting area as home-like as possible to facilitate family bonding and encourage rehabilitation.
Prison reform campaigner Roger Brooking said he had been concerned about Serco's contracts in New Zealand because of their mixed record in the UK. But he was impressed by the culture change at Mt Eden prison, in particular the use of first names between staff and inmates.
The Doncaster prison was the first British jail to be paid according to its results - it only received full payment if it reduced reoffending by 5 per cent.
This was similar to the proposed contract for the Wiri prison, Mrs Tolley said.
"If they don't beat the results from the public sector by 10 per cent, there are financial penalties."
Serco has had a patchy start in charge of Mt Eden prison but has improved its record on serious assaults and drug use in its second year.
Serco in New Zealand
Mt Eden Corrections Facility: 966 beds, 6-year contract worth $300 million.
Wiri Prison: 960 beds, 25-year contract (from 2015) worth $840 million.
Total NZ prison population: 8700.