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The country's prisons are overflowing, forcing Corrections to open emergency units and double up more inmates in cells.

An unprecedented 20 per cent hike in the number of women inmates has been particularly problematic, resulting in up to 25 at one time being locked in police cells to cope with overflows.

Corrections confirmed yesterday it will soon take a case to the Government to have the proposed 150-bed Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility expanded to cater for the increase.

Government ministers, preparing for the release of National's law-and-order policy next weekend, used the growth in the prison population to reject Opposition claims the Government was soft on crime.

Justice Minister Phil Goff and Corrections Minister Paul Swain both told separate parliamentary committees yesterday the current muster was the result of the 2002 Sentencing and Parole Acts which had created longer sentences.

Tougher bail conditions and increased police crime resolution rates were also contributing, they said.

The June prison muster is sitting at 6537.

Mr Goff later told Parliament the Government had responded to the public's 1999 referendum call for tougher sentences and was now shifting its attention to early intervention measures to prevent crime.

He warned the imposition of tougher sentences would necessitate cuts to health and education spending and said New Zealand already had the second highest imprisonment rate in the Western world.

Act's plans to axe all parole would cost up to $7 billion more over 10 years, he said.

National is expected to announce a raft of plans next week and there is speculation it will unveil a "three strikes and you're out" policy for some, if not all, imprisoned offenders.

Under that plan inmates who have already served two terms in jail would be denied bail and then parole if they faced another prison sentence. National law and order spokesman Tony Ryall refused to confirm or deny his party's plans, to be released by leader Don Brash.

But in a statement yesterday he said: "Under National career criminals will get longer sentences, they won't get bail and they won't get early parole."

The Government has allocated $638 million for the building of four new prisons, including Auckland women's.

Public Prisons Service manager Phil McCarthy conceded yesterday Corrections was struggling to cope with the increased musters, much higher than had been predicted by the Ministry of Justice.

It has refitted emergency units in two prisons, put double bunks into Rimutaka Prison and enlarged its contract with Auckland's private remand prison to take close to 100 extra inmates.

It was now looking at "all options we have got in the existing system" to further increase capacity.

If numbers continued to grow the department may be forced to consider more "undesirable options" which could see inmates being squeezed into exercise yards and cell lock-up hours increased.

The rise in women inmate numbers - there are now 379 - was a result of increased sentence lengths and a rise in the number of violent offences they were committing.