The big brother of a Levin prisoner on the run has called on his sibling to stay safe and turn himself in to police.

Emmanuel Witana, 23, escaped custody at the Levin District Court about 5.40pm yesterday.

He, Wiremu Eparaima, 30, and Te Wera Hemara, 27, escaped through a garage door after a fourth man helped them overpower an officer.

They then demanded a passing driver take them away from the courthouse before fleeing on foot.

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A 29-year-old Shannon man was appearing in court today facing charges of assisting an escape and aggravated assault.

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The fugitives - who were in court on a variety of violence and driving-related charges - have not been found. Manawatū area commander Inspector Sarah Stewart told reporters today they had associates across the Horowhenua and wider area.

Emmanuel Witana's older brother, Karlo Witana, told the Herald what his brother had done wasn't right. He suspected Emmanuel had just had enough and decided to run.

"He and most of my family have been in and out of that court so many times. Sometimes the judges provoke ... his behaviour or they quote things from the past, start calling him names," Karlo said.

"It's not nice standing there, and you can't do anything, and someone's just telling you literally how much a piece of rubbish or dirt you are."

Karlo, 25, is the oldest of 15 kids; Emmanuel is the second oldest. The kids had a tough childhood, with police often at their house and their dad in and out of jail for drug-related and burglary offences, Karlo said.

"I think my brother, he looked up to my dad quite a lot so he followed a little bit more in his footsteps."

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Most of the kids ended up in [the then] Cyfs care, with Emmanuel in a Hastings boys' home, which Karlo said was run by gang members.

When the situation became unbearable Emmanuel had run away, but Karlo said Cyfs ignored his pleas and sent him back.

Until then he was "actually a really good kid".

"He was always trying to avoid fights ... but from then on he started getting a little bit more fed up with people. People weren't listening to him."

He was increasingly fighting, running away and getting arrested.

Karlo said he had avoided that path thanks to sports and a determination not to be like those around him. He moved to Auckland and last year and became a world champion in Brasilian jujitsu in his class.

At the time, he told the Horowhenua Chronicle that "if you have a dream, if you believe in that dream, work hard and do not give up, you can achieve anything".

Karlo Witana - who won gold in his class at the Brasilian jujitsu world champs last year - wants young people in Levin to be offered alternatives so they don't join gangs. Photo / Supplied
Karlo Witana - who won gold in his class at the Brasilian jujitsu world champs last year - wants young people in Levin to be offered alternatives so they don't join gangs. Photo / Supplied

Areas like Levin needed to offer alternatives to young people and more support and a listening ear, Karlo said. Otherwise their only alternative was gangs.

He was unsure if Emmanuel was a member of the Nomads. He wasn't a fan of the gang, but could see the appeal for local youth.

"That's the only option they have so they're going to take it. Especially if they have no money or they have no food or they have no clothes."

And he wanted the public to think twice before piling into the fugitives on social media and "trying to get a like or something off other people's life".

"Everybody's done something wrong, whether cheated on your diet that you shouldn't have cheated on, or thought bad about someone, or shoplifted.

"People just need to relax and take a step back and think about what people might be going through, think about what their family might be going through, and then just help each other out."

Asked what message he would give his brother, he said: "Take a day to just relax, and not stress out too much and then maybe go hand himself in. Because eventually he's going to get caught. But just stay safe and don't do anything stupid again."

Manawatū area commander Inspector Sarah Stewart told reporters at Levin Police Station this morning that officers were "working hard to locate these offenders as quickly as we can".

The police manhunt was now focused on Manawatū, and further afield where the men had friends.

The men had been in court facing a variety of violence and driving charges.

They and a fourth prisoner were being guarded by only two officers - which had not been ideal, Stewart said.

She did not know whether they were handcuffed at the time.

They were inside Levin District Court and being moved to where a vehicle was waiting in a garage to take them away.

One offender then pressed an emergency button to get the roller door to open enough for him to duck under it.

Another offender then held on to an officer while the other two prisoners left through the garage door.

The trio ran toward the local supermarket, got into a member of the public's vehicle and made him drive toward northwest Levin, before getting out and fleeing on foot.

The men posed no specific threat to the public, Stewart said, but urged people not to approach them.

Meanwhile it has emerged that one of the trio has previously attempted to escape from prison.

Eparaima has tried to escape prison before, when he and fellow prisoner Jacob Peta tried to break out of Manawatū Prison in 2007, when he was just 18.

The Manawatu Standard reported that escape attempt took over an hour as they climbed four 4m mesh fences.

But they were thwarted at a final perimeter fence when a guard raised the alarm.

Eparaima was sentenced to four months' imprisonment, to be served cumulatively with his then current sentence.