Auckland officials have had to send remand prisoners to the Waikato overnight because of a desperate shortage of prison and police cells in the Auckland region.
A sudden upsurge of about 2000 extra prisoners since sentencing and parole laws were tightened in 2002 has seen prisoner transfers almost double from 6553 in 2000 to 12,040 in 2004 and 11,878 last year.
Just before Christmas, Auckland lawyer James Maddox had one client who spent two days on remand, waiting for a court hearing, in the Papakura police cells.
"He was moved to the Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP)," Mr Maddox says.
"When he came back to court, he was remanded again. But ACRP couldn't take him, Auckland and Papakura police cells were full, so they took him down to Hamilton.
"When he got to Hamilton they said, 'There's no room for you.' He believes he spent the night in the Tokoroa cells, but he's not 100 per cent sure because it was the middle of the night. I think he came back to Auckland for a shower."
This kind of people-shuffling is disrupting education, addiction treatment and even probation reports.
A prison officer who quit recently in Christchurch says prisoners are transferred to the North Island for six or eight weeks, then back southwards, or vice versa.
"If they were doing a course, that blows it out of the water. It all stops. They say, 'I was doing a course up north.' You can't do it here because the course is full here, you'll have to wait."
Auckland regional mental health manager Derek Wright says drug and alcohol courses in jails "might start with 10 people and the next week there might only be three because seven have been relocated to other prisons".
Kaikohe lawyer Kelly Hennessy has a client who was still waiting this month for a probation report which was due before Christmas.
"They shipped him down to Mt Eden as part of the muster blowout so he still has to have this report done," he says. "There were six or eight in the same situation because they have been shipped out."
A Salvation Army report published on Friday, Beyond the Holding Tank, blames the crisis on tougher laws and a failure to reform prisoners to stop them reoffending.
A new Bail Act in 2000 drastically restricted bail. As a result, judges remanded twice as many people in custody in 2003 as the number who eventually got jail terms when they were sentenced.
In 2002 the Sentencing and Parole Acts abolished suspended prison sentences, extended indeterminate sentencing to more offenders and allowed the Parole Board to keep dangerous prisoners in jail for their full sentence.
Ministry of Justice figures show that these changes increased the proportion of men getting jail terms for serious offences by about 1 per cent, and women by about 3 per cent. The parole changes are keeping more inmates in jail for longer.
But contrary to public belief, the reports show that crime itself is not a major factor in our bulging prisons. While the number of prisoners has jumped by 33 per cent since 2002, the violent crime rate has dropped by 1 per cent and the total crime rate by 14 per cent.
Victoria University criminologist John Pratt says this is nothing new. New Zealand has long imprisoned more of its people than England or Australia.
Our crime rate was steady at about two reported crimes for every 100 people through the first 70 years of last century, leapt between 1970 and the early 1990s to about 11, and has fallen back a bit below 10 in the past few years.
England and Wales show an almost identical trend, with the crime rate also jumping from about two per 100 people in the 1960s to about 10 by the year 2000. It has inched up fractionally since then.
Yet despite these matching crime rates, New Zealand jailed 56 people out of every 100,000 in 1950 against just under 50 in England. Today we jail 185 and England only 146.
Both countries, of course, have been naturally concerned about the dramatic increases in crime that occurred in the 20 years after about 1970.
Mason Clinic director Sandy Simpson points to a book, The Great Disruption by Francis Fukuyama, which blamed similar increases in many countries on the postwar "baby boomers" reaching early adulthood, and on the breakup of the two-parent family as birth control, welfare and more service jobs freed women from unhappy marriages.
"It's about the change in the institutions of society - the stability of the family, the church, the community and long-term employment," Dr Simpson says.
He believes 'P' has driven a further wave of offending in the past few years. "It's a high-quality social toxin."
But Professor Pratt notes that, both before and after the "Great Disruption", New Zealand punished offenders more severely than Britain.
Ironically, he believes this may be because New Zealand has been a more cohesive, stable society, seeing itself as "God's own country".
"The desire to defend paradise led to a marked intolerance of those who threatened the social cohesion," he says.
"Prison conditions and prison levels represent something more than the way criminals are punished. They, too, are barometers of a particular country's cultural traits and values. In New Zealand, they represent the dark side of paradise."By Simon Collins Email Simon