Police stations could act as prisons under a law change sought by Corrections.

A briefing to Police Minister Paula Bennett states the new power would let Corrections temporarily operate spare capacity in a police jail, as if it were part of a prison.

"This authority would be available only in the case of a highly exceptional and unanticipated event that cannot be managed by other means," the briefing states.

The law currently allows for the short-term detention of prisoners in police jails, but these cells are operated by police.

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Prisons should not be anywhere else in our society, and we shouldn't be turning other places into prisons that don't have the adequate resources.

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Corrections deputy national commissioner Rachel Leota said the proposed amendment would be a contingency measure, requiring a declaration from the Corrections Minister.

"Such a declaration would only be made to address an unanticipated acute shortage of accommodation, once all other practicable steps had been taken to address the shortage.

"Practicable steps would include exhausting the capacity buffer in prisons, and relocating prisoners within the affected region. There are currently no plans or need to operate police cells."

But with a booming prison poulation and little spare capacity, officials want to create some breathing room in any event that would swell the prison muster, or reduce the number of prison beds available.

Dr Katie Bruce of Just Speak has concerns about the proposed law change. Photo / John Borren
Dr Katie Bruce of Just Speak has concerns about the proposed law change. Photo / John Borren

The proposed change has alarmed Dr Katie Bruce, director of the Just Speak social justice organisation.

"We have got to draw a line - prisons should not be anywhere else in our society, and we shouldn't be turning other places into prisons that don't have the adequate resources."

Police jails weren't designed like prisons, Bruce said.

"There's no easy way of people getting visitors, they don't have the shower facilities, areas where meals can be prepared - they are designed to be sat in a few hours, or perhaps overnight in some cases."

Another worry was the power wouldn't be used in exceptional circumstances, but more generally. The Government needed to address why prisons were full, she said.

"The solution does not lie in finding more cells ... answers lie in the laws we brought in in the last few years. We have 27 per cent of prisoners are on remand - they haven't been sentenced - and half of those won't even receive a prison sentence."

Corrections Minister Louise Upston said the proposal was among a number of options to help address prison capacity that she would consider in the near future.

The prison population has increased at a rate much higher than forecast in the past two years, and soared past 10,000 in November. It has been driven by tougher bail laws, stricter sentencing and repeat offending by drug and alcohol addicts.

The Government plans to spend up to $2.5 billion on new prisons and expanding existing ones over the next few years, but in the short term more prison beds are urgently needed.

Measures have included reopening recently closed prison units, looking at holding female inmates in Rimutaka Prison, a men's prison, and double-bunking and increasing capacity at existing units.

The law currently allows for the short-term detention of prisoners in police jails, but these cells are operated by police.

Corrections already has the power under the law to use Court cells, and in January confirmed it was considering sleeping some women prisoners in the holding cells at the Manukau District Court.

Labour's Corrections spokesman Kelvin Davis said efforts to try and find space for prisoners were a "shambles".

"The National Government believes they are being tough on crime and making New Zealand safer. It's not - we are just filling our prisons up with people, many of them who shouldn't be filling up prisons. And now they have bottled it in terms of forward planning."

In January Police started an investigation and apologised to a 59-year-old man who was mistakenly left in a holding cell at Masterton District Court from Saturday morning until Monday morning, when he was finally discovered.