Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga invoked one of the world's most famous prisoners, Nelson Mandela, when he opened a new prison at Wiri today.
"No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails," the minister said, quoting Mandela.
He said New Zealand was at a crossroads.
"Do we really want to lock up our prisoners and throw away the key?" he asked.
"Do we really want to write off most of our most disadvantaged citizens?"
He defended the decision to put computers and phones into every cell in the new prison so that prisoners can pursue educational programmes to help them get jobs when they come out.
Serco, which will run the new prison, put on a display of staff in full riot gear to show that security will be tight.
But prison director Mike Inglis said the priority would be programmes to reduce reoffending after men are released from jail at the end of their terms.
Mr Lotu-Iiga was speaking as he opened New Zealand's first privately-owned jail to be used mainly for sentenced prisoners in south Auckland this morning.
The new $270m jail, is named Kohuora, which translates to "coming out of the mist into the new world of the living".
The prison's 960 beds make it one of the two biggest jails in the country, equal in size to Mt Eden Prison, also run by Serco.
In Mt Eden, 676 of the 952 prisoners at the end of last year were on remand awaiting sentencing.
Upper Hutt's Rimutaka Prison was previously about the same size. But part of its operations were being closed now that Auckland prisoners can serve their time close to home at Kohuora.
Kohuora will also be the first New Zealand prison with phones and computers in every cell.That initiative was part of a Serco drive to help prisoners learn to read and write and gain the skills needed to get jobs and integrate into law-abiding society on their release.
Serco will earn bonuses of up to $1.5m a year if Kohuora prisoners reoffend at rates least 10-15 per cent below prisoners released from other New Zealand jails.
All 284 staff at the new prison have been recruited. The first prisoners are due to move in later this month.
Mike Inglis to run prison
The Scotsman recruited to run Serco's new prison at Wiri is learning Te Reo Maori.
Mike Inglis, 45, began his speech at the prison's opening yesterday with a long greeting in te reo - then apologised for his broad Scottish accent.
He said he and his wife Margaret and children Ethan, 13, and Mischa, 8, were enjoying New Zealand and planned to stay here permanently.
"I took this job for two reasons," he said. "It was an opportunity to bring the family to New Zealand, and professionally I was really sold on the vision to reduce reoffending and to make a real difference to a country with a high recidivism rate."
Mr Inglis has a master's degree in criminology from Leicester University and spent 20 years in the Scottish Prison Service before joining Serco last year. He was reported to be the youngest prison governor in Scottish history when he took charge of Aberdeen jail at age 36, and was most recently governor of the 700-bed prison at Perth, just north of Edinburgh.
When he left Perth, he told the Dundee Evening Telegraph that part of his job was helping prisoners with their education.
"I've come across prisoners who have reached their forties and not been awarded a certificate for anything," he told the paper.
He was part of an Early Years Initiative which worked with prisoners' children, a service he is replicating at Wiri with a dedicated children and families team.
He also coached soccer in Perth and still plays here for the over-35s at Fencibles United in Pakuranga.