ACT Party hits out at email urging police to 'consider necessity of arrests' due to prison capacity issues

The ACT Party has hit out at an email sent to some frontline police urging them to "consider necessity of arrests" since one of New Zealand's largest prisons is nearing capacity.

However Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis said it's "not correct" that prisoners won't be housed safely if they need to be in custody, adding there is still room for another 583 prisoners across prisons in New Zealand.

In an email sent on Friday and leaked to the Herald on Sunday, a senior sergeant told Wellington police staff that since Rimutaka Prison was at "near maximum capacity", the District Custody Unit (DCU) would start looking after the overflow of Corrections remand detainees when required.

"Repeat breach of bail and warrant offenders may be remanded in Police custody for a prolonged period. Arresting officers should consider this before making an arrest," the email said.

Approval from the unit sergeant would be required and arresting officers are to call before transporting detainees.

The NZ Herald said the arrangement is in place until further notice.

While a police spokesperson told the outlet it's standard practice for officers to weigh up whether people need to be taken into custody, and Police Minister Ginny Andersen called it an "operational" matter that's up to Police, ACT justice spokesperson Nicole McKee hit out at Labour over having its "values all wrong".

"Police are questioning how they are supposed to keep New Zealanders safe. One staff member said: 'I have no idea what the threshold is for being held in police custody now'," she said in a statement.

She said the Government's "first job is to keep law-abiding New Zealanders safe from criminals".

"Imagine working late in your dairy. You've been attacked before. You know the Government has run out of places to put criminals. Where are your rights? Where is your safety?" McKee said.

However Davis said it isn't correct that prisoners will not be able to be housed safely if they need to be in custody.

"If police remand a prisoner in custody, they will be accommodated. If a Judge sentences a prisoner to jail, they will be accommodated. That relates to both Rimutaka Prison and the prison network as a whole," he told Newshub in a statement.

"The prison network is designed to be fluid, so it can adapt when the population rises and falls, and when there are surges such as during holiday periods we have just had."

McKee said Labour's decision not to expand prison capacity was "naïve and dangerous" and "will make New Zealanders less safe".

In 2018, Labour announced it would build a 500-bed high-security unit and a 100-bed mental health unit instead of the 2000-3000-bed prison proposed by the previous National Government.

Davis said at the time the ambition was to reduce the prison population by 30 percent over 15 years, so they weren't looking at expansion plans "whatsoever".

"The Government has run out of room to put dangerous criminals because it doesn't want to build more prisons or put people behind bars," McKee said.

However Davis disagreed, telling Newshub that public safety "is always the top priority" and there is "absolutely no suggestion" this is at risk.

"I am informed that even considering the current pressure on Corrections officer numbers, which has been well documented, there is still room for another 583 prisoners across prisons in New Zealand. After this, there are contingency plans to manage any overflow with the network having more than 11,000 beds," he explained.

"Corrections and the Government have been working hard to address staff numbers and are having good success.

"It has been a tough period for staff and prisoners during COVID and the subsequent staffing pressures but suggesting this has led to people not being sent to prison is completely inaccurate and simply scaremongering."