The prison muster has tipped over 10,000 again, but the declining trend has Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis looking to phase out double bunking and retiring "cramped horrible cells".
The current prison population, considered to be at crisis level a year ago, was at 10,039 last week - 300 higher than at the end of last year, which Corrections put down to the backlog from over the summer break.
But this was still 7 per cent lower than the peak of 10,820 in March last year and 1500 lower than the Ministry of Justice forecast.
A number of initiatives have contributed to the decline, including a focus on supporting prisoners to get bail or parole if they qualify, and reducing the over-representation of Māori through partnerships with iwi.
Instead of risking a public backlash and revisiting bail laws - which has seen the number of remand prisoners double since bail laws were toughened in 2013 - the Government has sought to support prisoners who were struggling to navigate the bail process.
The National Party has questioned whether a rise in the number of bailed and paroled prisoners could impact public safety, but Davis said that judges and the parole board still applied the same criteria when considering safety risks.
"These people would ordinarily get bail, and the people who should be in prison are still in prison," Davis said.
"It's just getting the information to the judge in a more timely manner, so it's silly to say we're letting more and more unsafe people out. They would be let out anyway, just in a timelier manner."
Davis cited cases where prisoners had their cellphones taken away and contacts deleted, and they were then forced to write letters to relatives to ask if they could be housed while on bail.
"You have to write to the auntie and hope she sees the letter and replies back via snail mail. It was just ridiculous. So we just started ringing auntie, and instead of a decision taking three months, it can be made in days," Davis said.
The number of prisoners on remand fell from 3338 to 2940 from January to December last year, with the number of people on electronic bail rising from 604 to 767 over the same period.
Making sure prisoners had access to rehabilitation courses that were recommended by the parole board also improved their chances to get parole sooner.
Support for parole had been provided to 41 prisoners in the year to March 2019, and none of them has been convicted of any further offence to date.
These support systems are part of the High Impact Innovation Programme, a cross-agency response to the Government's aim to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent in 15 years.
In the year to the end of March 2019, the programme was found to have effectively reduced the prison muster by 206.
The programme also includes the Remand Triage Initiative, a programme of 21 additional police prosecution staff to ensure cases are looked at in a timely manner; Davis cited one case where a defendant at Rimutaka Prison was on remand for 22 months.
According to an independent review for the period from February 2017 to May 2018, the initiative had saved $2.8 million and was reducing the prison muster by 65 beds a year.
Davis also wanted to widen the scope for prisoners on remand to take rehabilitation courses while awaiting trial. At present they often did not because it could be taken as an admission of guilt, but Davis said they should at least be able to take self-awareness courses or literary courses.
Figures from 2016 showed that only 37 per cent of prisoners were able to complete everyday literacy tasks, while 27 per cent were in critical need of education.
Davis said a falling prison population was generally benefiting prisoners' chances of turning their lives around.
"Some of the issues with a full prison system was that Corrections had to move prisoners around.
"Someone in Ngawha Prison could be taken to Hawke's Bay Prison at the drop of a hat just to manage the prison muster, and people said, 'Our loved ones were taken away and I can't get to Hawke's Bay to visit', and that's not good for rehabilitation."
If it continues to fall, Davis said Corrections will retire old facilities the "cramped horrible cells" at Waikeria and rely less on double bunking, which he said was "not conducive to rehabilitation".
"I would prefer to see no double bunking. For now that is the reality, but we are working towards phasing it out."
More support for prisoners upon release through partnerships with iwi was also an area of focus; Māori make up 51 per cent of the prison muster.
Davis talked about a prisoner who had learned about Māori customs in Hawke's Bay Prison, but when he was released and tried to say a karakia with his family, "they looked at him like he had stepped off another planet".
"It was a light bulb moment for me. These guys are going through these changes inside prison and Dad and tries to implement the things he's learned, but the family think he's just acting weird.
"We know family involvement is really important to rehabilitation, yet we make it quite difficult to make families get involved."
One example of working with iwi was the partnership between Corrections and the Office of the Kiingitanga, which is working towards a new reintegration centre in Hamilton where released women prisoners can live with their children.
Davis conceded that the 30 per cent reduction target was not based on anything other than aspiration.
"We're 7 per cent of the way into that 30 per cent. It's a promising start. There will be hiccups and fluctuations, but we're certainly committed to it."
Govt strategy to cut prison muster by 30 per cent in 15 years:
• Support for remand prisoners when applying for bail or to take courses recommended by the parole board
• Partnerships with iwi to find Māori solutions for Māori offenders
• Improved, modern facilities and less reliance on older cells and double bunking
• Earlier access to rehabilitation services and more support for prisoners on release