When Celia Lashlie was manager of Christchurch Women's Prison, Maka Renata's mum was jailed there.

Renata is the boy who Child, Youth and Family put into the care of an uncle who taught him how to rape.

His mum, writes Lashlie in her new book, was a hard woman, a woman for whom life had not been gentle.

She wasn't easy to manage in prison with her tough exterior and she didn't let anyone draw too close.

In Lashlie's view, the woman saw her criminal offending as the way it had to be in order for her and her children and grandchildren to survive in an unforgiving world.

On the evening Lashlie delivered the news of her 14-year-old son's arrest for rape, the tough woman wept.

"Her beloved son, barely out of childhood, had just inflicted violence of the sort she had experienced numerous times in her life," writes Lashlie. "Her son was a rapist... It was as I watched her weep and felt her genuine sorrow and grief that I realised, not for the first time, that in some way I had yet to fully understand the mothers of our at-risk children are part of the answer."

Lashlie is sometimes angry and often cynical in The Power of Mothers: Releasing Our Children.

Few escape severe criticism - not the media, not Child, Youth and Family or the Corrections Department, not the politicians nor the bureaucrats. All are culpable in her eyes for contributing anything from lip service to wasted opportunities, from careless cruelty to abject systemic failures.

It is the third book by the former prison manager who is now a social commentator and agitator.

It is also her last, she says, because now she just wants to get on with the practicalities of finding ways to effectively help disempowered women - and if you do that, you'll cut down prison rates for men, she says.

Lashlie has written previously on how people end up in prison and also on how to raise good men, but received most notoriety the time she was working for the Special Education Service when she made an off-the-cuff comment that a blond, angelic 5-year-old boy was sitting in a classroom somewhere in New Zealand and that he was coming to prison. He would probably kill someone on his way, she said.

The latest book is not a fix-it book, it's more a coming together of Lashlie's thoughts and lessons from the past nearly 30 years, 15 of those in the prison service and the rest working in the community.

It was written, she says, as a test of whether she is able to pick up all the pieces and turn them into something meaningful.

As the book weaves its way through various stories - from Bailey Junior Kurariki's hounding by the press since he was 12 and which she likens to "bear-baiting", to the failure of Maka Renata by CYF and the needless death of Nia Glassie - it builds momentum to a woman Lashlie is working alongside now, a woman she calls Jane, whose small children have been removed by CYF and who despite working so hard and making big changes in her awareness, is unlikely to ever get them back.

Jane was herself a foster child who suffered terrible abuse and who, Lashlie says, is being psychologically raped again.

Basically, the system is "buggered", she says on the phone from Sydney, where she is on a speaking engagement.

She agrees she might sound angry in the book, but says she writes emotionally for a reason.

She wants to crack open the apathy of the average person who has no idea what really goes on, and because she believes we are in the mess we're in because we are training people to disassociate from emotion.

From prison officers to social workers, people are told to work by the book and to leave their heart, soul and intuition at home, she thinks.

Sure, the book is grim reading, she says, and of course there are extraordinary people out there doing extraordinary things.

But she is "over " the superficial debate and she is "over" CYF acting like bullies.

She is critical of the Government's new push for the faster permanent placement of children, which will leave in its wake, for some, a burning anger and resentment and a pathway to prison.

Lashlie talks of moments as turning points in people's lives and says in both Renata and Kurariki's lives such moments were created by CYF.

It could and should have been otherwise, she says. Instead, more than $1.4 million was spent keeping them incarcerated, yet the money was not well spent as there is nothing to show for it.

One of Lashlie's key messages, however, is for the women's prison service.

As of March this year, 496 women were in prison, compared to 8000 or so men. We should lead the world in how we manage these women, she says, "because it is, by and large, the women in prison who are raising the criminals of the next generation".

The three women's prisons are run largely like the men's prisons and do not address the main issues female prisoners have.

The prisons, where women are forced to live away from the usual chaos of their lives, are such a wasted opportunity, she says.

Nearly all of the women prisoners, 80 to 90 per cent of them, have been sexually, physically and psychologically abused throughout their lives, and often we - as in society and our state agencies - continue to abuse them when they get out, she says.

"I think that's the flash of anger I have," Lashlie says.

The media help in abusing them and no one claims any responsibility, she says.

"We run this idea that they've had terrible lives and it was someone else's fault, and I've become increasingly angry because it wasn't someone else's fault.

"Sometimes it's our bloody state agencies that have done it and how about we stop being quite so sanctimonious."

Moral courage is required in letting women take control of the women's prisons and link them together, to help them - often the matriarchs in families - face up to their lives. Lashlie has long been calling for a champion to be appointed to advocate for the needs of women prisoners.

"The Minister's got his eye fixed on the 8000 men but no one's pausing to recognise the underlying cause. That's the frustration."

We create the problem then complain about the problem, Lashlie says, but take no ownership..

Such as in the handling of Jane's life, whose soul Lashlie says she has seen stripped bare.

"People will challenge 'you're too close, it's too soft, what are you suggesting?' The argument is I'm simply suggesting we learn the art of walking with her while she explores whether she can do it differently."

And lately, there are glimmerings that Jane's work on herself is having repercussions.

One of her older boys from a previous violent relationship, who has already been in prison and who Lashlie thought would be back there, has started to make changes because of the changes his mother is making.

"We're absolutely captivated," says Lashlie. "He's starting to make some decisions that are way outside anything I ever thought he was capable of."

He might go backwards again, she concedes, and he might go back before he goes forward. But even the fact that he has got where he has is amazing.

"See the circles? There are circles within circles."

In the book, Lashlie writes that we can focus on the building of more prisons and sit in our comfortable chairs with a glass of wine lamenting the lack of parenting skills among the lower classes.

What we really need to do, she says, is work with the mothers.