A stalemate over privatising prisons has put the government's plans to double-bunk more prisoners in jeopardy, forcing it to resort to other measures such as using shipping containers as cells instead.
National had planned to introduce double bunking of up to 1000 more prisoners to cater for the growth in prisoner numbers until a new prison was built. However, the prison officers' union has withheld its permission for the plan, saying it wants the government to provide an assurance it will not privatise prisons first.
Corrections Minister Judith Collins said that meant the Government had to look at alternatives, such as adding on converted shipping containers or prefabricated "concrete pods" to existing prisons.
"Obviously it's not our first choice, but we've got to be able to house these prisoners."
Ms Collins said allowing double-bunking to go ahead would have delayed the need to call on such alternatives. She said the union had initially agreed to provide a "virtual plan" of a prison using double bunking, but had not done so and was now deriding it as a "terrible idea".
Beven Hanlon, head of the Corrections Association of New Zealand, said the union would not agree unless the Government backed away from its plans to privatise prisons. He said the two main concerns were officers' safety and job security - which would be at risk under privatisation.
"Getting our permission might be easier if they could ensure we didn't then get made redundant because prisons were sold off to McDonald's or the like. If they can give that assurance, we will talk with them to make this double-bunking work."
He said he would prefer the use of shipping containers as cells to the double-bunking option, although it would cost more.
Yesterday Prime Minister John Key said he believed both were likely to be needed to cater for prison growth under National's harder line policies.
He did not believe proposals for double bunking were under threat.
The Budget included $385.4 million for double bunking and Ms Collins said she had not given up on it. The Government had offered to increase staff so the ratio of staff to prisoner numbers stayed the same and had offered extra infrastructure to accommodate staff.
"We are going to do double-bunking, we have to. But I need to have in place other alternatives as well and [shipping containers] is one of the alternatives. By February next year, we will not have enough beds in the country to house [prisoners]. And that's not something I'm going to sit back and do nothing about."
She said the speed of the Mt Eden prison rebuild and plans to open a new prison, most likely at Wiri, would also impact on the need for extra cells. Firm plans for the new prison are expected next year.
Ms Collins said the cost of adding converted shipping containers as cells in existing prisons was about $53,000 to $63,000 per bed - compared with $372,000 per bed to build a new prison using the same device. The cost per bed at the Spring Hill prison was $643,000, using conventional construction. She had viewed two mock-up containers at Rimutaka Prison - a shower block and a cell block. "It's what you put in it that is important - they're lined and have heat pumps. They're spartan but they do have lavatories, so they're significantly better than what we have in Mt Eden and Mt Crawford."