Prisoners can now be housed in court cells

Court cells can be used to temporarily house prisoners, under a bill passed by Parliament today.

The Government introduced the Corrections (Use of Court Cells) Amendment Bill under urgency and passed it through all its stages.

Only the Green Party opposed it and the bill passed its third reading on a 112-9 vote.

The bill amends corrections and resource management legislation to allow prisoners to be kept in court cell blocks.

Corrections Minister Judith Collins told Parliament the use of the cells would be a last resort.

"The use of these cells for Corrections Department prisoners will not be allowed to interfere with the operation of the courts, including the normal function of these cells - detaining people who are appearing before the court."

The prison population was around the highest level it had ever been and it was forecast to continue to grow, Ms Collins said.

The Government was extending double bunking and the use of container cells to address capacity.

Court cells had been used in the past, including in July 2005 and January 2006.

Ten blocks of court cells (101 cells) were currently gazetted as part of the department's prisons but district plans prevented them being used, and planning approval changes to allow overnight accommodation was a lengthy and costly process -- as much as $200,000.

The situation was not acceptable and the bill addressed an anomaly, Ms Collins said.

The cells would be used under and agreement between the heads of the Justice Ministry and the Corrections Department.

Requirements to be met included:

* That there was an acute short of prison accommodation and no other practical option available;

* The Secretary of Justice was consulted;

* Prisoners received legal entitlements and no prisoner was kept in a court cell for longer than four days.

Green MP David Clendon said his party did not believe an increase in the prison population was inevitable.

"What we have here is a long-term and a chronic problem that demands a long-term vision, a long-term strategy and some decent investment and real solutions."

The bill was a band-aid solution, he said.

"How will prisoners' meals be delivered and prepared, what toilet and bathroom facilities will be available to them, what facilities will there be to provide for family visits or other support, where will prisoners exercise their right to physical exercise?" he asked.

Labour supported the bill, but MP Clayton Cosgrove said the party had questions to raise.

"There are going to be extraordinarily large costs in dealing with the logistics of transportation, of food, of security for staff and security for the community," Mr Cosgrove said.

He understood there were 800 beds available in prisons right now and he wondered why the bill needed to be rushed through under urgency.

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