A reported proposal that the most dangerous prisoners should remain locked away and left to take their chances if an Asian bird flu pandemic hit New Zealand has been attacked by civil libertarians.
The proposal is contained in Corrections Department contingency plans to deal with the country's 7500 prison population in the event of an avian flu disaster, a national Sunday newspaper said today.
The plans included releasing low-security prisoners but leaving the most dangerous inmates at the mercy of the disease, which has killed more than 70 people overseas since late 2003.
Also under consideration was sealing entire prisons for six weeks, with no one allowed in or out and the dead being buried in mass graves.
New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties chairman Michael Bott said he had not been aware of the proposals so could not comment in detail about them.
But, as a matter of principle, the state had an obligation to look after those in its care, he said.
"The state had a moral obligation to look after the people in its charge, and that includes prison inmates," he told NZPA.
"It cannot just wash its hands because there's a natural disaster. The right to life is fundamental."
Mr Bott also said that, in a time of natural crisis, it made sense to release inmates who were less of a threat to the community.
However, that could pose a legal problem, as ordinarily it was the Parole Board that made the decision to free inmates.
Bevan Hanlon, president of the Corrections Association, the prison officers union, said a "brainstorming" document proposed that prisoners who might be freed included those nearing the end of their sentences.
Others might be those convicted of relatively minor crimes such as drink-driving, he told the newspaper.
Another option was to isolate entire prisons, with prison officers being locked in with inmates, and only medical staff allowed to come and go.
Mr Hanlon said the union wanted prison officers to be on the list of those guaranteed supplies of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu.
Because inmates were close together, disease spread quickly through prisons, he said.
The Health Ministry has estimated that, in the most severe scenario involving Asian bird flu, up to 40 per cent of New Zealanders could contract the disease, resulting in up to 33,000 deaths.