Prisoners who have learnt business lessons in drug dealing are being taught how to turn their skills to the good in a remarkable new course at the Auckland women's prison.
Twenty long-term recidivist prisoners, some of whom could barely read and write, have all passed a Waikato University paper in entrepreneurship which required developing business plans for a variety of products and services in "straight street".
Fashion designer Annah Stretton, who suggested the project after visiting the women's prison since 2014 through her social enterprise RAW (Reclaim Another Woman), said many of the women were jailed for methamphetamine offences, which have driven a near-50 per cent jump in female prison rolls in the past decade.
"Most of them have been involved in meth at some level," she said.
"We are working with one woman who got her business up to $12 million.
"The meth does create an opportunity for women to become quite entrepreneurial. That's why we are seeing more and more women going to prison - they can generate good returns, and they become quite successful cooks."
Stretton believes that education is the key to saving the lives of prisoners, most of whom have endured abuse and other trauma before they got caught up in drugs and crime.
"Study is the only thing that will compete with criminal outcomes," she said.
Starting in collaboration with a women's refuge in 2013, RAW has opened five houses in Hamilton for women coming out of prison. It enrols them in courses at Waikato University and Wintec, connects them with employers, and helps them to get back their children who have mostly been removed from them by the state.
"We have now had more than 60 through the programme," Stretton said.
"Most of these women have been in prison most of their life. That is the demographic that Corrections said we believe their behavioural problems are so entrenched that we don't want to invest any more money in them."
Stretton, who runs her fashion business from Morrinsville, visits the women's prison in South Auckland twice a week.
She set up RAW with her sister Rebecca Skilton, who has 25 years' experience in mental health. They brought in outside speakers to run prison workshops on health, leadership and creative arts before Stretton realised that entrepreneurship might unlock the women's passions.
She spoke to Waikato University deputy vice chancellor Robyn Longhurst, who is on RAW's board. The university agreed to develop the course and buy 20 iPads.
Teaching fellow Gina Millar designed the paper and loaded her lectures on the iPads, and information technology specialist Paul Cowan taught the women how to use them.
"Some of them had been in there for extraordinary lengths of time," he said.
"Some of them had never seen a modern smartphone, let alone tried to do an online course on an iPad."
Prisoners are not allowed access to the internet, so from mid-April until he picked up the women's last assignment yesterday, Cowan has driven from Hamilton to Wiri once a week to download the women's work and upload Millar's feedback.
Millar said the course was at university level and "quite theoretical".
"I was afraid it was a little bit too complex because there was such varying ability of literacy and education in the group," she said.
"They have really helped each other. It was almost like a sense of community within the group.
"It's been quite amazing seeing the impact, just incredible growth. They are so much more confident and inspired. Just using the business language, they have really assimilated the information, which is quite amazing to see."
• A book on RAW's work, The RAW Truth, will be available for $49.95 from July 2. All proceeds will go to RAW.