There is going to be a great deal of talk about prisons in the next month as the government decides whether or not to build a new prison at the eye-watering cost of one billion dollars.

Sending people to prison is something we do a lot in New Zealand. Our imprisonment rates are particularly high relative to similar countries due to the disproportionate incarceration rates of Maori.

Here, as in all western countries, the prison is such a ubiquitous punishment that it has become normal; a natural consequence of breaking the law. In reality, prisons as we know them are relatively new.

Modern prisons are a 19th century development. In the span of human efforts at justice, then, they are historic infants. Before this, gaols were squalid places used to hold people until the real punishments (like flogging and hanging) could be undertaken — or to hold people until their debts were paid.

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The first purpose-built prison of the modern era was Eastern Penitentiary in New Jersey in 1829. This prison, like the others that followed throughout the US and the UK and then all around the world, had single cells, recreation areas, architectural surveillance, and was kept clean and tidy. These prisons were different because they were designed to be places of reform.

Enlightenment thinking around the rationality of man — humankind — led to the belief that given the correct circumstances — mostly silence, a bible, and perhaps some manual labour — prisoners would see the error of their ways and be released to never seek mischief again.

The belief in redemption was deeply held in the formative years of prisons. One chaplain wrote that all people could benefit from time there: "Could we all be put on prison fare, for the space of one or two generations, the world would ultimately be better for it."

But such lofty expectations soon fell away. Prisons became more about punishment than reform.

In recent years, and driven substantially by the laudable efforts of National's Bill English, New Zealand prisons sought to rekindle this original purpose by working to rehabilitate offenders. So far, however, results have not matched ambition.

A goal of reducing reoffending by 25 percent by the end of last year fell well short — they didn't achieve a fifth of that. And our prison muster has continued to swell.

The new Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, is talking about initiatives that move beyond the prison, focusing on the drivers of crime — prevention rather than correction. Recently I wondered whether Little might be the new Ralph Hanan, the National Justice Minister in the 1960s who abolished the death penalty and created and implemented a number of bold innovations that put New Zealand at the forefront of justice efforts — particularly around youth crime, which, at the time, was skyrocketing.

Little's concerns aren't rises in crime, but the rise of the prison muster, and he finds himself at a jarring crossroad. One path says we must not build a prison, and instead focus on reducing the prison population — in line with the government's goals. The other says the muster has reached a critical capacity and radical changes are unpalatable to the public or simply imprudent and thus a new prison, while perhaps undesirable, is simply necessary.

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My guess is that the prison will be built.
There are a number of people, including many of my academic colleagues who I respect, who say the fixes are easy. I don't share that view. The problems are twofold. The first is that the public need to be brought onside; no simple task in itself. The second is that you need to be able to actually achieve your goals; an even harder one.

One area where Little will be hoping he can mimic Hanan is the ability to convince sceptics of the value of the cause. But Little should be aware that talk and innovation are easy while successful reform is difficult. For all of his efforts, Hanan never did arrest the increases in youth offending in the 1960s.

If Little and the government were to fail, the consequences are dire. Overcrowded prisons are dangerous places, and they are certainly not places amenable to a reform agenda. Building the prison will buy the government time and insurance against failure.

The fear for many, and it's a valid one, is that normal service will resume and we will simply find ourselves back in this very position in a few years time. We ought do everything we can to prevent that.