I ATTENDED the opening of the new prison in South Auckland yesterday and, while it may go against the grain to see the best part of a billion taxpayer dollars spent on locking people up, I came away thinking that the money might be worth it.

With the exception of the United States, New Zealand has the highest rate of incarceration in the rich countries' club - the OECD.

Our rate of around 200 prisoners per 100,000 of population should be a source of embarrassment to all of us. Australia manages to put away 30 per cent fewer of its people than us, and the average rate for the European Union is around 70 prisoners per 100 of population, less than half of our rate.

When retired businessman, Tony Gibbs became involved in the New Zealand Howard League nearly four years ago, he asked me to discover why an otherwise enlightened county like NZ had so many convicts, I did some research.

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When I compared New Zealand with Australia, I discovered that our higher rate of incarceration is not driven by longer sentences in New Zealand and nor did we have a greater range of offences that attracted a prison sentence.

Our problem was a sky-high rate of re-offending.

According to the new Corrections Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iinga, each prisoner now costs the taxpayer $105,000 a year so a real effort to get re-offending down to international averages would benefit all of us.

That objective has been taken up by the Corrections Department under the leadership of Ray Smith, its dynamic CEO, and is reflected in the philosophy and design of the new jail.

The former Corrections Minister, Anne Tolley, must also get a big share of the credit for this approach.

Countries with low incarceration rates also have low rates of re-offending - unsurprisingly.

The approach taken in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Germany is that the punishment is the removal of liberty and the sentence is the opportunity to educate, socialise, upskill and prepare the prisoner for a life without crime.

There are several well-established strategies to reduce re-offending and most of these are reflected in the new jail and the way it will be run.

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Although numbers are hard to come by, it seems likely that a majority of offences are committed when the offender is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The big problem is the booze. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation is now available to most prisoners and is compulsory in some circumstances. It's not a silver bullet, but works often enough to make it an essential tool. Prisoners in the new jail will have this option.

Maintaining family bonds during a sentence also contributes heavily to reducing re-offending and the location of Auckland South Jail will contribute to this. With a third of the population, Auckland will finally have an equal proportion of prison beds, meaning that fewer inmates will be too remote for a family visit.

I briefly left the opening ceremony for my regular political commentary on Radio Live and host Sean Plunket observed that another family-friendly feature of the jail, phone lines into every cell, had not generated as much opposition as he would have expected.

A refreshing focus on education and skills development in the new jail has meant that prisoners will have much greater access to computers than is normal in the older jails, though the internet will remain off limits.

This will mean that a wide range of previously inaccessible educational programmes will be available, but only if the curse of illiteracy is addressed first.

The two most important factors in cutting re-offending will need to develop if the jail is to meet its potential.

Well over half of New Zealand's inmates are functionally illiterate. This means that they can't read well enough to read the Road Code and pass a driving test.

The Howard League will be offering its volunteer-based literacy courses at the jail but with a maximum muster of 960 prisoners, we can't meet all of the need and more effort will be required in this most basic skill.

The other big factor in re-offending is finding a job on release, and with unemployment rates at low levels, at least in Auckland, this ought to be achievable for many prisoners.

The concept of a "working jail", where all prisoners have tasks or training is slowly permeating the corrections community in New Zealand and is reflected in the new jail.

Most New Zealand jails have offered skills training at some level, but the new jail will have the facilities to partner with companies like Placemakers and develop marketable skills. This jail represents a new approach to crime and punishment that has proven itself overseas.

It's a brave initiative we should all support.

-Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is a supporter of pro-amalgamation group A Better Hawke's Bay. He is chief executive of the NZ Howard League and a former president of the Labour Party. He is a political commentator and can be heard on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon programme at 11am on Mondays, and Sean Plunket's RadioLive show at 11am on Fridays. All opinions in this column are his and not the newspaper's.