Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis is fiercely defending his handling of the Waikeria Prison riots last month after National leader Judith Collins accused him of shirking responsibility.
Riots broke out at the prison located south of Hamilton in late December and continued into early January. A group of prisoners lashed out over what they claimed were inhumane conditions and a lack of access to basic necessities.
By January 3, Davis confirmed that the prisoner disorder was over, and that all remaining prisoners were securely detained. But the group of 16 men behind the riots - five of whom were deportees from Australia - had "destroyed" the 'top jail' facility.
In her State of the Nation speech on Tuesday, Collins - a former Corrections Minister - took aim at Davis' "appalling" handling of the prison riots. She said Davis "seems content to shirk responsibility and lay blame" with Corrections staff.
"As a new Minister of Corrections, I believed we were exposing our hard-working Corrections officers to an unacceptable level of harm. Too many of them were being assaulted by prisoners," she said.
"[Davis] thinks prisoners taking over a prison and setting it on fire is OK."
Collins then doubled down on her criticism of Davis speaking to The AM Show on Wednesday, slamming the Labour deputy leader for not "showing up" at the prison to try and put an end to the violence.
Her comments came after host Duncan Garner asked what she meant in her State of the Nation speech when she said National will be kind but not at the expense of getting things done.
"We would not have let Waikeria burn as a prison because of being kind," she said. "For a start, there would have been a lot more support put in there for Corrections, we would have had a minister who would have actually turned up, we would have had somebody asking and finding out about the staff."
Collins added, "It's very important that all our prisoners are in a place of safety but also our staff, and one of the things I noticed with Kelvin Davis in his non-handling of the Waikeria riots and burnings, is that he just wasn't there."
Davis has hit back, reminding Collins of a claim she made about her time as Corrections Minister.
"Judith Collins has a history of getting the facts wrong when it comes to Corrections. She falsely claimed there were no prison escapes under her watch as minister, when in fact she presided over eight breakout escapes in three years," he told Newshub.
"She's got it wrong again."
Collins defended the claim last year, saying it was a joke.
Davis said his top concern through the Waikeria event was for the safety and wellbeing of staff, which is why he made the decision "not to bow to the demands of the prisoners nor make a public comment".
He said that would have "simply opened up political negotiation with the prisoners and done nothing to bring the event to a safe resolution" and may have "prolonged" the event and put staff at further risk.
"Unfortunately those opposition MPs who did wade into the issue in order to generate headlines only helped to embolden them, extend the duration of the event, and increase the risk to safety," Davis told Newshub.
"I said at the time, that the actions those prisoners took, and the significant risk they put themselves and others in, were completely unacceptable and in no way justifiable. I, like many others, await the outcome of the many reviews underway, including the police investigation."
Davis said he didn't want to "say too much" about the investigations since they are still underway, but he has "every confidence" they will reveal the "full picture of what has happened", including the events that led to the incident itself.
"Following the event, I visited the site and met with staff, to express my full thanks for their professionalism and bravery in person," he said.
"There was a lot of emotion from staff who had to evacuate hundreds of prisoners while fires burned around them, and staff who safely brought the incident to an end. I have huge admiration for what they did in very difficult situations."
A new high-security prison with a modern mental health facility is currently being built at Waikeria Prison and will open in 2022.
The Government has reduced the prison population by 20 percent since it peaked in March 2018.