The Government is considering law changes in a bid to urgently lower the prison population - but it's refusing to provide details of what those changes might be.
Heavily redacted documents released to Newshub Nation highlight the "severe capacity pressures" faced by the Department of Corrections.
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The current prison population is almost 10,800 and is now projected to reach 13,400 by 2027.
Labour's goal is to lower the prison population 30 percent over the next 15 years.
In the documents the Government is warned if it doesn't want to accept further deterioration in jail conditions and "ultimately a failure of the prison system" the projected inmate population must drop by a specified amount. However it's keeping that vital figure a secret too, blacking it out in the documents released to Newshub Nation.
The papers stress the need for urgent action, saying that "…given the currently highly stressed state of the prison network, a third of this reduction [figure blanked out] would need to be fully realised before the end of 2019."
The documents acknowledge "the numbers are very challenging targets", and law changes would be needed to reach them.
"The types of change we would need to implement to reduce prisoner numbers at the pace needed to avoid decisions to invest in more prison capacity ...may also raise significant public concern about the Government's ability to keep people safe in their communities."
The Department of Corrections is working on short term measures to ease the growing prison population, but the documents say these are only expected to "reduce prisoner numbers in the range of the low hundreds".
An aide memoire dated December 2017 notes unless something changes further decisions to build a new prison will be needed every two to three years.
It also noted rapid prison growth meant it was "not possible to safely avoid additional investment in prison accommodation in the immediate term".
The documents contain advice on what to do to manage the problem through to 2021 -"albeit in a state of high stress" - but that detail has been redacted as well.
Most of the redacted information is withheld under a section of the Official Information Act that protects the confidentiality of advice to ministers, where there's concern the release of that advice would interfere with the decision-making process.
The Government has already committed to repealing the Three Strikes legislation, and the documents suggest large reductions in the prison population would be possible through changes to Bail, Sentencing and Parole Acts. But it notes those changes could "meet with significant resistance".
According to the bundle of documents, our jails are so packed it is compromising effective rehabilitation and the Department of Corrections has "little ability" to cope if a prison is damaged by natural disaster or another unforeseen incident.
In March, Cabinet was also advised unless it builds more prison space in the medium term, the Government will have to rapidly reduce pressure on jails by "progressing...reforms at a rate that is largely unprecedented".
This month's budget earmarked $198 million for pop-up prison units to house up to 600 prisoners.
The Government has deferred a decision on building an extension or replacement jail at Waikato's Waikeria prison.