Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

On the run: Figures reveal number of Kiwi prisoners to make an escape

Exclusive: Figures show dramatic drop in escapes over last seven years.
Sixteen inmates broke out of New Zealand prisons between 2007 and 2015. Photo / Bob Harding
Sixteen inmates broke out of New Zealand prisons between 2007 and 2015. Photo / Bob Harding

Sixteen prisoners have broken out of New Zealand prisons in the last eight years, and a further 50 have done some kind of runner while in the custody of the Corrections Department.

The most high-profile prison-breaker was Phillip John Smith, who fled to Brazil while on temporary release from Springhill Prison, but like him, all 66 escapees were recaptured.

Figures supplied to the Herald under the Official Information Act revealed that from 2007 until 2015, 16 inmates have broken out of prisons across New Zealand, the most at Waikeria Prison near Te Awamutu, Waikato.

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Alongside the prison-breakers, 18 inmates breached temporary release from jail, 18 managed to ditch Corrections staff while attending court hearings and a further 14 took off while out of prison grounds with work parties.

The figures show a dramatic drop in escapes over the last seven years, with 23 recorded in the 2007/8 year and five in the 2014/15 year. In the 2015 calender year to November 10 there was just one reported - a prisoner who evaded an escort on a trip to court from Christchurch Prison.

Corrections National Commissioner Jeremy Lightfoot said the organisation was constantly working to improve security and prisoner management.

"Public safety is the department's number one priority," he told the Herald.

"Escapes from New Zealand prisons have fallen to an all-time low and have remained relatively consistent over recent years. All offenders who have escaped during the last decade have been captured and returned to custodial control."

Mr Lightfoot said Corrections was still "continually striving" to improve prisoner management.

"We have invested in a range of security improvements to sites across the country during the last decade, including enhanced perimeter fencing, installation of detection and surveillance systems and the introduction of single point-of-entry into prisons.

"In 2010 we also introduced a new security classification system that focused on escape prevention and reviewed the criteria that a prisoner must meet to be considered for employment in a work party outside the perimeter."

Mr Lightfoot said when a prisoner did escape or abscond, Corrections immediately notified police. Police were responsible for recapturing the inmate.

"We also notify Customs to set up a border alert. Following recapture we undertake a review to identify how the prisoner escaped custody, how we can enhance our systems and policies and whether staff adhered to those guidelines," Mr Lightfoot said.

When prisoners did escape, their security classification was reviewed and they were placed in "more secure accommodation".

Prisoners also faced criminal charges if they escaped.

While the circumstances of escapes varied, the most common charge laid by police was escape from lawful custody, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Mr Lightfoot said though Corrections worked hard to prevent escapes, there was always a risk a prisoner would find a way out.

"The department treats all escapes from custody with the utmost seriousness. We are continually striving to improve public safety and this will always be our bottom line."

The great escapers

George Wilder


became a national folk hero in the 1960s when he escaped from prison three times. His first break was from a Taranaki prison, where he had been jailed for pinching a Jaguar car, in 1962. Wilder spent 65 days on the run. In 1963, he and three other inmates escaped from Mt Eden prison by scaling the walls with a rope made from sheets. While the other prisoners were soon caught, Wilder remained at large for almost six months. His final escape was in 1965, when he and two others used a shotgun to take a prison guard hostage. They were caught soon after. While on parole in 1969, Wilder got into trouble for stealing rifles and fled by rowing across the Firth of Thames. He was caught and served out the rest of his sentence.

Aaron Forden


was the first person to escape from then newly-opened Mt Eden Corrections Facility, in October 2010. Known as Houdini for his repeat escapes, Forden spent four months on the run after the break-out. Forden and another prisoner broke into a serviceway at the prison and ran off on foot. The other prisoner was quickly recaptured, but Forden escaped. Two years earlier he escaped from the old Mt Eden prison by knotting sheets together and crawling through roof cavities to a high tower. He then used his makeshift rope to lower himself over the barbed wire on the outside wall. Forden was spotted by a member of the public but was too quick for police.

Phillip Smith


was serving time for murder and child sex offending when he fled New Zealand while on temporary release from Spring Hill Prison in Waikato. Unbeknown to authorities at the time he had obtained a passport issued in his birth name Phillip John Traynor and boarded a flight to South America. His escape was only discovered when he failed to return to prison but he was tracked to Rio de Janiero. A woman at a boarding house where Smith was staying in the Brazilian capital recognised him on a news report and called police. He was eventually extradited back to New Zealand and is awaiting trial. His sister Joanne Smith and a Corrections officer have also been charged in relation to his escape.

Dean Wickliffe


Escaped from the country's toughest prison - and he managed it twice. He was first jailed in 1972 over the death of Wellington jeweller Paul Miet during an armed robbery. Over the years that followed he was released and recalled before being locked up on new weapons and drugs charges in 2010. He was the first prisoner to escape from maximum security Auckland Prison, known as Paremoremo, in 1976. That escape was over in minutes - he tried to swim across an estuary but got stuck in the mud.

In 1991 he escaped for a second time after he was recalled to prison for offending on parole. He was at large for a month before he was located and put back in his cell.

Escaping from custody

Prison breakout: A prisoner has breached security measures and has physically left the facility. Examples of a breakout include going over, under, through or around security barriers.
Escape from escort: A prisoner has escaped a Corrections escort while on an outing under supervision including to court or the hospital.
Absconding: When a prisoner physically leaves a designated area and is away from direct custodial control, for example, walking away from prison work parties out in the community.
Breaching temporary release: A prisoner on temporary release from prison, usually as part of a release reintegration plan, fails to stick to the conditions.

Lock it in
From 2007 to November 2015:

16 inmates have broken out of prison
8 breakouts were recorded at Waikeria Prison
18 prisoners, including Phillip John Smith, breached temporary release
18 prisoners escaped from escorts while attending court
14 prisoners absconded by leaving designated areas like work parties.

- NZ Herald

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