It has been said, "She who opens a school door, closes a prison". Imagine if New Zealand's prisons became institutions for renewal rather than for punishment.

Imagine if every person leaving prison was equipped with the right combination of life, communication and vocation skills to enable them to embark on a new life, a new career and most importantly, to become the parent their children so deserve.

Sounds too far-fetched? I don't think so and here's why.

Having worked with a diversity of offending women for the past four years, one of the consistent pieces of feedback I've received is that prison was the one thing that called a halt to their offending and that this simply would not have happened with a community sentence.

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Our prisons currently serve as a vital interruption to criminal life. They are an opportunity for offenders to break free from drug and alcohol dependencies, an opportunity to remove themselves from the chaos, violence and disruption that their life has become and, really importantly, they are an opportunity to engage in learning, both academic and of lifestyle.

Prisons don't need to be "a university of crime", as Professor Ian Lambie of Auckland University's psychology department has called them. Instead, they arguably offer the best opportunity for life change for a demographic that has suffered from a legacy of intergenerational disadvantage and repeatedly experienced failure through the education and welfare systems.

Today most of our female offenders are well down on the education scale whether it be literacy, numeracy, or primary or secondary school achievement. Many of the women have left school before 15 and around 60 per cent of all the women in prison (70 per cent Maori) have literacy and numeracy levels lower than NCEA level 1.

Add to that the deficits that exist on the life skills front — including basic parenting skills, healthy relationship behaviours, social drinking, financial literacy, housekeeping, cooking, and gaining a valid driver's licence — and the size of the opportunity prison affords these women begins to become apparent.

Although it may sound somewhat counter-intuitive, our prisons provide one of the safest and most focused opportunities for learning and renewal that many of these women will have experienced in their life to date.

While I'm not suggesting Corrections adopt some form of "new age" boot camp approach to prisoner rehabilitation, surely taking a fresh look at how we can maximise this vital period of interruption in an offender's criminal lifestyle would be worthwhile?

As a country we have no issue with building tertiary learning institutes to pave the way for the advantaged, so why don't we reframe the way we look at prisons and begin to see them as a university for our disadvantaged, with periods of incarceration as an opportunity to recalibrate and bring about change and hope in a safe environment?

Given that we have removed offenders from a dysfunctional and disruptive space, this is the one time that having a set of supported choices and being equipped to bring about significant change in their life becomes very real.

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But it doesn't stop at education. Next, we have the opportunity to embed forgiveness back into our communities. Imagine if every woman leaving prison was truly supported by the community as she made her transition from the only life she had ever known, to a law-abiding one that was completely foreign and full of unimaginable challenges.

Sadly, that's not what is happening. A criminal record is another form of discrimination that impedes an offender's ability to turn their life around almost at every turn. Housing, employment, vocational study and opportunities for overseas travel all become limited and in some instances impossible as a result of past discretions.

Is this really in the long-term interests of the community? Surely facilitating the pathway to a new and legal life and/or incentivising sustained good behaviour through a clean slating process is going to do a far better job of building the functional communities we all desperately want for our families?

We simply can't continue to apply yesterday's thinking to today's problems and expect to see progress. Instead, we have the opportunity and the obligation to reframe the situation that we are facing with burgeoning prisoner numbers and endless cycles of reoffending.

There's no doubt in my mind education is the starting point and the game changer for tomorrow's prisons and now is exactly the right time to establish facilities and a curriculum that will transform them from a place of punishment into a place of change.

Annah Stretton is the founder of RAW (Reclaim Another Woman), a charity that works with recidivist female offenders.