Watching all of this unfold we asked ourselves: could this happen in New Zealand?
But there are a lot of other, less Shawshank Redemption ways of escaping prison, and we’ve seen a lot of them over the years.
Like Philip smith, who made a short-lived escape to Brazil last year, most of prison escapes come in the form of “walk outs”, where prisoners on work outside of the facilities or on short-term releases simply fail to report back.
Despite being relatively easy to do, this isn’t especially common – prisoners who are allowed out for work or short-term release are already nearing their actual release, something that they don’t want to jeopardise. That’s especially true in New Zealand, where the odds of successfully evading capture for any meaningful period of time without leaving the country are essentially nil. Most escapees are caught relatively quickly, and obviously an escape attempt is unlikely to be looked upon kindly when considering parole or assigning any other privileges like work programmes or temporary release.
Given that poor impulse control is something that’s led a lot of people into prison however, it does happen, and there are ways to escape the country – Brandon Victor Pillay (also known as Ricardo Pisano) walked away from a work detail half way through his 15 month sentence for extortion, and was not seen for ten years until he appeared facing a murder charge in the UK in 2013. How exactly he managed to leave New Zealand is not clear.
For his ten-year escape, Pillay has been dubbed “New Zealand’s greatest prison escaper”. But for a walk-out that title hardly seems deserving: our previous longest escaper, and once New Zealand’s most wanted man, was Brian Curtis, who escaped only two years into an 18 year sentence for attempting to import 1.5 million dollars’ worth of LSD. He and a friend escaped from Paremoremo maximum security prison in 1990 by cutting through prison bars and climbing over a wall using a ladder made from shelving held together with tape. Curtis also made it out of the country - it wasn’t until eight years later that his poor-impulse control got the better of him and he was caught trying to cash a forged cheque in the Philippines.
Despite the drama of his escape, Curtis only broke free once. Others have made a career of it: Aaron Steven Forden, who has earned the nickname “Houdini”, has escaped custody on multiple occasions, the most famous when he scaled Mt Eden’s walls with a rope made out of sheets in 2008, and the most recent in 2011 when he and an accomplice broke into a service way and fled in the early hours of the morning. His time on the run has included sprees of burglary, car theft, high speed police chases and even ramming police cars. He also has a history of destroying his prison cells as a form of protest against his prison conditions, which included 23-hour lockdown and no access to rehabilitation services.
Perhaps our most significant career escapist comes from as far back as the 1960s. George Wilder not only escaped from prison three times and lived on the run for over 237 days in total (without leaving the country), but also won the hearts of everyday New Zealanders as he went. Despite committing a string of burglaries and thefts during a run that covered over 2600 kilometres, he left apology notes and cleaned up any property that he entered. He often came within a hair’s breadth of being caught, but escaped repeatedly by swimming across rivers, driving through police barricades and running through the bush. At one point he evaded capture by joining in a shoulder-to-shoulder search party that was attempting to track him. As the public watched his daring escapes with increasing interest, he became something of a folk hero. A popular song was even written about him.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another George Wilder – as we saw from Philip Smith’s escape, pictures and information about fugitives are spread much further and faster than they were in the 60s, making it much harder to stay out for long. William Stewart followed a similar playbook for his 100-day escape in 2009, but his habit of carving the thankyou notes into tables rang a little less sincere.