20 October 2022

Laying the foundations for participation

The day begins at 8am in the Rolleston Prison Construction Yard, when around 60 men leave their prison units, put on their hardhats, pick up their tools and get to work on new builds for Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities for public housing customers.

But housing isn’t the only thing under construction…

“The purpose of the Construction Yard is to give back to the community and to support the men in prison to have better life options on release,” says Industries Manager John. “The employable skills and qualifications earned through the Yard offer the men opportunities for further study and employment on release. But, as important as these practical skills and qualifications are, the other less tangible skills they are developing will help them make the most of these opportunities and, potentially, will make the biggest difference for them and their whānau going forward.”

Alex, recently qualified as a Licensed Building Practitioner in prison, and Instructor Lee inspecting work at the yard.


Qualified builder and Instructor Lee, says staff see a real change in people working in the yard and that it provides the perfect environment for the men to put their rehabilitation learnings into practice; growing their social skills, confidence, and ability to work with other people.

“The general skills people learn in the Yard are amazing,” he says. “The men are dealing with things they’ll have to adjust to on the outside – relationship challenges, making mistakes, patience for themselves and others, perseverance and staying calm under pressure… The yard gives them space to challenge and practice these behaviours - a safe place where it’s okay to make mistakes.”

Instructor Lee

Instructor Lee


The unique culture at the yard also does wonders, with Lee saying the men feeling able to leave any bravado or attitude they might have back at their unit, “because they’re part of a team out at the yard.”

This is reflected in the carved waharoa (gateway) at the yard, Te Waharoa Ki Te Maramatanga Hou (the gateway to a new understanding), which gives inspiration, knowledge and understanding to all people that enter. (Read more about this waharoa PDF, 353.8 KB )

“We have men who have mental health issues or struggle to communicate, and this work builds them up, giving them confidence to succeed in their rehabilitation,” says Lee.

“Others learn to share their skills and take on leadership roles within the work party, building their ability to make a life outside the wire, away from crime.”

With almost ten years’ experience working at the yard, Lee can think of many men who have left Rolleston Prison and are now earning good wages at building sites around the country. “We have an emphasis on real-life skills here,” says Industries Manager, John Bryant. “Our yard is just like a building site outside the wire, with toolbox meetings and scheduled breaks, led by our instructors, who are qualified builders themselves.”

While some men bring construction experience with them to the yard, which instructors help them turn into formal qualifications, others are starting from scratch, picking up nails and hammers for the first time in their lives.

“Some men are resistant to the work at first,” says Lee, “but end up telling me that they enjoy it more than they thought. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained from building – starting from the bottom, our guys do it all.”

Case study: licensed builder qualifies in prison

Alex* has a new skill to add to his toolbelt, with his recent qualification as a Licensed Building Practitioner (LBP), a qualification he gained at Rolleston Prison.

Alex and Lee discussing progress in one of the Kāinga Ora homes being built at the yard.

Alex and Lee discussing progress in one of the Kāinga Ora homes being built at the yard.


Building houses for Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities at the Rolleston Construction Yard, Alex has helped construct over 20 homes, and is the first person at the Yard to become a fully qualified builder while in prison.

Entering the prison system with a range of construction experience but no formal qualifications, Alex was surprised at his own capabilities, saying, “I never thought I was smart enough to do any paperwork.”

Having left school at 15, Alex has since graduated from a range of rehabilitation programmes in prison, gaining NCEA levels 1, 2 & 3 and Horticulture National Certificates levels 2 & 3 in just ten months! Over nine years, he has completed a total of 900 credits.

His experience at the yard has not only given him his LBP certification, but has changed the way he works with other people. He’s even grown to take on a leadership role within the site, helping newer members in the work party grow their skills.

“It’s been good for me – I probably wasn’t the nicest builder on the outside but working in the yard has changed the way I work with other people,” he says, “I actually really like sharing my skills.”

Each part of the waharoa has a significant meaning, including two figures - Tiki - with tool belts at the bottom of each support post, representing the men working in the Yard.

Each part of the waharoa has a significant meaning, including two figures - Tiki - with tool belts at the bottom of each support post, representing the men working in the Yard.


Alex says the yard has given him a safe space to put his rehabilitation learnings into practice, growing his patience and communication skills. He’s also learnt to safely manage his frustration when things don’t go as planned, and to have empathy for the people around him.

“When things go wrong now, I think about how the other person is feeling, and what they did to get to this position,” says Alex. “In the old days, I would have chased someone round the yard, but I’ve really shifted the way I react now. I know how to stay calm.”

In providing people a safe space to fail and grow from their experiences, and learn employable skills, the construction yard is changing lives.

This achievement puts into practice the Department’s Hōkai Rangi strategy, helping to humanise and heal members of the construction work party, and laying the foundations for participation to make sure people are less likely to re-offend upon release.

“I’m so grateful for all of the support from the yard supervisors,” says Alex. “They have a great team at Rolleston who are really supportive.”

Alex’s plans are to use his qualification for future employment and a new start, on release.

*Not his real name

The Rolleston Construction Yard has been designed to take men from across the country, teaching them employable skills they can take back to their community upon release.