Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she backs Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis as being best placed to comment on racism in the prison system.
The government has launched an ambitious plan to drastically cut the number of Māori in prison from 52 percent down to 16 - to match the overall Māori population.
The long-term strategy's key focus, Hōkai Rangi, is that whānau and prisoners will get more visits with their families, and more people that they can call while they are behind bars.
Whānau of inmates will also be able to access rehabilitation programmes in the community if they want to.
The strategy states prison staff will be expected to treat prisoners with respect and uphold their mana - like they are worthy of dignity and care.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morning Report obviously things aren't working in the prison system and there's a disproportionate number of Māori in prison.
Ms Ardern said system failures have led to high imprisonment and reoffending rate and while offenders need to pay a debt to society, there is an opportunity to do something different to bring down these numbers.
She said she supports Mr Davis, who has said parts of the prison system are extremely racist, though would not say whether she herself believes so.
"What Kelvin's been brave enough to do is say why don't we try and do something different in our prison system ... he's obviously closest to it."
Mr Davis wouldn't want to put blame on individuals working in the system that's been built around them, she said.
"What we want to do is try and, once people are in that system, do things differently," she said.
Ms Ardern said it's unfair to load the Corrections Minister up with trying to deal with a range of systemic issues of poverty and disparity.
The National Party is critical of the new strategy, saying it puts prisoners first and will come at the expense of an effective prison system.
National's Corrections spokesperson David Bennett told Morning Report the aim to cut the number of Māori in prison down 10 percent in the next five years an unrealistic target.
He said the resources haven't been put in place to achieve this.
"It's based on basically having better communication and a prisoner-first policy within the prison system."
Mr Bennett said the strategy doesn't really focus on getting prisoners back into the community and into jobs.
Former National Party cabinet minister Chester Borrows, who chairs the government's Safe and Effective Justice advisory group, told Morning Report treating people with respect will have flow on effects in the justice system but having it explicitly stated in the policy is an indication that the system is racist.
"It's a big indictment that we actually have to have a policy to come out and the big hallmark of it is that you treat people with respect."
He said the system currently treats people in an inhumane way.
"It seems to be such an obvious thing but it doesn't happen that way."
He said failure in other departments, like Oranga Tamariki, inevitably leads to a justice outcome so all agencies need to take responsibility.
"I'm really pleased to see this in Corrections, I'd be really pleased to see the other government agencies take it up.
"It's not rocket science and people have been saying it for 30 years - that failures in education end up being failures in the justice sector."
The vast majority of people in the youth justice system haven't been to high school and those in prison come from the same social system, he said.
"Outcasts from society, or people who feel outcast from society, live by their own rules."