Travel to the scenic top of this country, off sealed roads, and you'll find how the most incarcerated tribe in the world, Ngāpuhi, lives in the midst of postcard-pretty landscapes, the stage set of our colonial beginnings.

It's not just the physical poverty of run-down buildings, of accepting a Third World standard of living, but the truer poverty, of hope.

In the United States and the UK the term they're using is "s*** life syndrome". It lies behind high rates of imprisonment, poor physical and mental health, and lack of motivation. Why not be stoned all day if there are no jobs? Why bother with school when the statistics are against you succeeding?

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This week's Justice Summit was intended to jump-start a different approach to jail for offenders, and to cut jail numbers by a third in 15 years. But the path to prison leads back to birth, and beyond.

An idealistic primary teacher friend travelled up north to teach. She loved kids and wasn't ignorant of Māori language and culture, but she came home beaten down by a level of aggression and reluctance to learn among the kids she tried to teach, an inversion of racism she'd not met before.

What does learning to read matter if a child is primed in opposition to education, and distrust of Pākehā?

Māori make up half the numbers in jail though they're only 15 per cent of the population, and Ngāpuhi half of that says Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis.

Blaming them won't fix anything, and "s*** life" applies to everyone who misses out when the gap between rich and poor has the annual chief executive's pay increase (2015-2016) more than the average wage. That's already artificially high at just under $50,000 because top earners drive up the numbers.

Many chief executives earn massive pay packets. The difference between such executives and prisoners can be literally life and death.

They can afford private hospitals, pick the best specialists when they're sick, and health insurance is probably included in their perks. How many people in the Far North and our dying small towns can afford health insurance? How many, anywhere, can afford to see a doctor?

It's not hard to diagnose s*** life syndrome. It kicks in when you get a rise in your hourly wage, then have your hours cut back. You feel it when your rural community withers as farms sell to conglomerates, and people go. Local schools follow. The doctor goes, then the store. You have to move, but where?

Not to the city. Nobody can afford to move there, though your kids struggle to. S*** life kicks in to the generation you taught to believe in education, who paid for it, and find the only work they can get with a degree is in coffee bars, on the minimum wage. Will they ever pay that loan back?

Owning their own home is an impossible dream, and they're white and middle class.

If you feel you're valueless you'll turn to drugs, anti-depressants and booze. You'll eat junk food and get fat, stuck in poverty, over or under-educated, untrained, and bitter. By now jail looks no worse than that, whatever colour you are, and you don't care if you go there.

Fix that.