The cell blocks are being finished off. The heavy cell doors swing on their steel door frames. Inside each cell the basic necessities - shower, toilet, basin, solid steel-frame bed - are in place.

Outside a towering steel mesh perimeter security fence, electrified and unclimbable, snakes round the 13ha prison building site.

New Zealand's newest prison, the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility at Hautu Drive in Manukau City, is being readied for business.

The country's largest women's prison catering for minimum to high-medium risk prisoners (including about 18 on life sentences) should be handed over by the contractors during May and open in August.

The 286-bed facility has been purposely designed to encourage behavioural improvement through a range of programmes and work.

It also means that up to half of women prisoners from the upper North Island will serve their sentences closer to home, children and families. These people have often had to serve sentences at women's prisons at Wellington and Christchurch because of bed shortages further north. Many women were looking after at least one child before entering prison.

The first prisoners will be low-risk inmates, while security and management systems are checked.

The new prison originally approved by the Government in 2001 was for 150 beds with a capital cost of $51.4 million. Because of increases in the number of women prisoners the project was expanded to 286 beds at $152.2 million.

The Department of Corrections has confirmed that its current resource consents allow extension to 350 beds, but a spokeswoman said "no firm decision has been made about expanding the site".

The new prison will take women from the 84-bed temporary women's unit at Waikeria and from Mt Eden Women's, which will close. Its 54 beds have been mostly taken up with remand prisoners.

Women prisoners, with a lesser inclination to violence and sexual offences than men, number around 400. They make up a small but increasing proportion (about 6 per cent) of the overall prison population of about 7000 people.

The prison manager of the new Auckland Women's facility, Jeanette Burns, managed Mt Eden Women's for five years and comes from a 20-year health management background. She says they will want staff to be very interactive.

One thing new entrants to Auckland Women's will notice is that access through the prison will be available in varying degrees, according to a prisoner's security risk, behaviour and a range of other factors.

Jeanette Burns says the thrust will be encouraging people to be active, learn to take responsibility and prepare for life outside.

For every prison inmate there are about four others serving community sentences on the outside.

There will a large range of activities including workshop and other employment such as meal preparation for those posing less risk. Higher risk inmates will get their food delivered into their secure area.

There will be help with rehabilitation and other problems.

There will also be a range of other amenities, such as a nursery for mothers and visiting children and some accommodation for mothers with babies, up to six months.

Special "self care" units will allow minimum security prisoners close to release to re-establish basic living skills and individual responsibility.

But behind all the newness of the buildings with the low-slung, well-lit architecture, Jeanette Burns notes, "this is a place where people are locked up".

The new facility is a prison, with vast amounts of grey corrugated iron and little colour.

The institution is loaded with modern security systems and designs, such as the 8m-high steel mesh perimeter fence topped with an electrified "floppy top" system that will set off alarms and not take the weight of a ladder.

You can smoke in your cell, by yourself, because it is classed as a residence, but at the end of the day, the cell doors are locked.

In a largely industrial area where the wind and rain can whip in from Manukau Harbour, nobody will mistake this newest prison facility for a holiday resort.

Prison facts

Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility (serving upper North Island, north of Taupo)
Site: Hautu Drive, Manukau City
Size 47ha. Buildings cover 13ha.
Prisoners: 286
Security Rating: Minimum to high-medium.
Peak construction staff: 600
Cost $152.2 million
Future prison staff (opens August): 170.

Source: Dept Corrections

Women prisoners' ethnicity (%)
Maori 56.5
European 35.1
Pacific 6.1
Asian 1.9
Other 0.4

Source: Dept Corrections Census 2003

Cell sizes
Single Cell: 8.88 sq m
Double cell: 12.12 sq m
Disabled cell: 10.62 sq m