In a Northland first, prisoners have been released from their prison cells in Ngawha to build a home for a young family in need.

Usually projects of this kind are carried out within prison walls but Ngawha prisoners have travelled to Dargaville each day to build a house - the first time in decades this has happened in New Zealand.

Jaimee Epere, 22, her partner, Himi Ihimaera-Mikahere, and their three young children had to layer on jackets and keep the heater on all day just to stay warm in their previous home. But thanks to housing charity Habitat for Humanity and prisoners, they no longer have to worry.

"It's good, amazing. Knowing we're going to be in here just feels so much better," she said.


Since September last year, the prisoners have travelled to Dargaville each day with supervision to build the four-bedroom home for Habitat for Humanity.

Miss Epiha said she was never worried they would be constructing her property, saying she trusted the system.

"I figured that if they weren't allowed out, they wouldn't be out," she said.

The house was built under the housing charity's Assisted Home Ownership scheme - families in need invest 500 hours of their time to build their own home. The family will then make affordable regular repayments to Habitat on a no-profit basis as part of a rent-then-buy model which helps families build up a deposit they can use when seeking independent finance to buy their home from the charity.

Conrad LaPointe, executive officer of Habitat for Humanity Northland, said there had been discussions between Corrections and the charity for a while.

"Each build was treated as a project and, for us, restorative justice was important. Our houses don't get built without these partnerships," he said.

Miss Epere said the house they were previously living in was cold, filled with mildew and difficult to heat. You step into their new home and even though it's cold outside and no furniture has been moved in, it feels warm.

"You can't even compare the two houses. My kids still think they need to put their jackets on but we were in here the other morning and had the heat pump on for 10 minutes and then we were like 'okay that's enough it's too hot'," she laughed.

Miss Epere and her family were often at the house helping out with the build and said although she received warnings from people who were concerned she'd be so close to prisoners, they never caused problems.

"People would say to me 'aw don't go there, they're prisoners' and I'd bring my kids around and people would say 'don't bring your kids there it's not safe'. But they were awesome, they were a big help, they're going to miss us."

Miss Epere said she had kept in touch with some of the prisoners.

"Some of them started the build and were released from prison before it was finished. They email us and ask for photos so they can see the progress of the house. They really enjoyed it."

Corrections Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga said the project gave the men skills for sustainable employment.

"Getting offenders into stable employment is key to improving the lives of offenders, their families and the community."